Near the end of pregnancy, it can be hard to tell the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions (which I will refer to from now on as warm-up pressure waves), and true labor contractions (birthing waves). Pregnancy books, and pretty much anywhere you can look it up on the internet, often make it seem like the onset of early birthing time is a clear-cut stage of the process. But the reality is that for many women, the beginning of birthing time can be hard to pinpoint. The transition between warm-up waves and true birthing waves is a slow progression. It can actually be a very frustrating, discouraging, and emotionally draining time of pregnancy.
That being said, there are certain ways to help distinguish between warm-up waves and true birthing waves. These hints may be helpful for women in that ambiguous end-of-pregnancy stage.
Signs that Pressure Waves Might Be True Birthing Waves:
- How hard is the belly? Most of the time, pregnant bellies feel similar to a puffed-up cheek. They’re full, but soft and squishy when you press on them. During warm-up pressure waves, the belly may feel more like a chin. There’s a certain level of hardness to it, as the muscles tense involuntarily. It may seem rock-hard at this point, but when true birthing waves begin it often becomes even firmer, more like a forehead.
- How intense are the waves? Some women may not feel any warm-up pressure waves, or only feel some of them. Other women feel them, but they can easily walk and talk through them, and continue any activities they may be doing. Sometimes, warm-up pressure waves can be more intense. A woman may want to sit down, close her eyes, and breathe more deeply through them. But when true birthing waves begin, they require much more concentration. Moms using hypnosis will want to use start using their hypnosis techniques by then to remain completely comfortable.
- How long are the waves? Warm-up pressure waves can vary in length, but often they are under 60 seconds long. For some women they tend to be anywhere from just 15 seconds to 45 seconds, though some may be longer. When true birthing waves begin, they are usually consistently at least one minute long.
- Is there a pattern to the waves? Typically, warm-up waves are sporadic. Sometimes they come back to back or in a pattern for a while, but the pattern doesn’t hold. The length and strength of these warm-up waves tends to vary as well. On the other hand, true birthing waves tend to come in a pattern; some women have a very clear pattern like clockwork, and others have more of a loose pattern. Neither is better than the other, but either way, they are usually less sporadic.
- How far apart are the waves? As I said, warm-up waves can vary in terms of frequency (as well as length and strength). But typically, they are not very close together, or only close together for a short amount of time. True birthing waves in early birthing time usually come every 10 minutes or so, for at least an hour and then continuing from there. As birthing progresses, they will come closer and closer together. In active birthing time, they tend to come every 4-6 minutes. They don’t stop or decrease with a change in activity or position.
The overall idea is that true birthing waves are longer, stronger, and closer together than warm-up waves, and they will continue to grow more so. They may follow a pattern, rather than being sporadic, and they are more intense. Although that still doesn’t always make it easy to tell when birthing time begins, these can be helpful signs for most women. Aside from those factors, there are also a few other “clues” regarding the difference between warm-up and true birthing waves.
Clues that Pressure Waves Might Be True Birthing Waves:
- Has there been a bloody show? This is a common term to describe the loss of the mucus plug from the cervix. (Some sources claim that the bloody show and loss of the mucus plug are separate events that occur at the same time. It seems to be a matter of opinion though. For the sake of simplicity, I will assume they are one and the same.) A clump of blood and mucus is expelled from the vagina as the cervix begins to soften and open in preparation for birthing. The bloody show can happen weeks or hours before birthing, or it can even happen well into the birthing process. Some women never notice it at all, though. So while it definitely is not a clear sign of birthing time beginning, it can offer a hint for some moms. If there has been a bloody show, and other signs of true birthing waves are present, it is more likely that mom is in her early birthing time.
- Has the bag of waters broken? A pregnant mother’s water breaking is a popularized sign of birthing time beginning, at least on TV. In reality, most women will not experience their water breaking before birthing begins. Instead, it will happen at some later point during the birth process. If the water has broken, and other signs of true birthing waves are present, then again it is more likely that mom is in her early birthing time.
- How far along is mom? This is a clue that may seem obvious, but it is worth being said. When mom is less than 37 weeks pregnant, her pressure waves are much less likely to be true birthing waves. (If a woman is concerned that her waves are more intense or frequent than they should be before 37 weeks, and/or has concerns about pre-term birthing, then she should definitely contact her prenatal care provider.) After 37 weeks, and as the baby’s estimated due date approaches, pressure waves are more and more likely to be true birthing waves.
Overall, I believe it is important to realize that all women’s bodies and all births are different. Some women are “textbook” when it comes to these signs and clues, whereas others have a very different path and process of birthing. Ultimately, the only 100% sure way to tell that birthing waves are true is to wait and see if a baby comes out! While that may seem discouraging, it ultimately means that the best approach is to develop a sense of surrender and respect for the process of birth.
It may feel encouraging during this waiting time to remind oneself that baby will come, and that it becomes more and more likely with each passing day. Know that your body is warming up, in just the way that it needs to.
For people of faith, resting in God’s wisdom may play the biggest role in keeping your peace during this time. You can remind yourself to trust God, because He knows the best time for your baby to be born. Know that in the grand scheme of things, it will be soon.
Waiting is hard, and obsessing over birthing waves can be easy to do. These feelings are valid. But in the end, it’s usually best to choose to let go of any attempts to control the birth process, and simply trust.
You can learn more about the birth process, including what to expect and what to do during each stage of birthing, in all Better Birthing online courses.
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