Counting down the months, weeks, and then days until your due date is certainly exciting. But let’s be honest: It can also be scary. It’s natural to wonder what labor will be like and question if you’re equipped for giving birth. The good news is that your body was designed for this, and as delivery day approaches, all kinds of physical changes take place to make sure you’re ready—without you having to do a single thing.
Building Muscle With Braxton Hicks Contractions
It’s no coincidence that as early as the first trimester, many pregnant people begin to experience practice contractions called Braxton Hicks contractions (aka false labor). “The uterus, which is a muscle, is contracting. What it’s doing is building up the muscle and changing the cervix tissue to create the force and power it’s going to need for labor,” explains Amy Romano, CNM, founder and CEO of Primary Maternity Care in Milford, Connecticut. During labor, strong contractions are needed to push the baby down into the birth canal.
Unlike true labor contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions should be painless, explains Sherry Ross, MD, OB-GYN at Providence Saint John’s Health Center in Santa Monica, California, and author of she-ology: The Definitive Guide to Women’s Intimate Health. Especially in your third trimester, you might see your belly tighten up like a basketball and feel some mild discomfort, or you might not notice anything at all. If Braxton Hicks contractions do bother you, “I tell my patients to drink a lot of fluid to rehydrate. Take it easy, get off your feet, and come in for an exam,” says Dr. Ross.
Braxton Hicks contractions are often mistaken for real labor during the third trimester because they can become more frequent and intense toward the end of your pregnancy. That being said, call your doctor if you have six to eight contractions in an hour for two hours, experience painful contractions and cramping, or have any concerns at all.
Softening of Joints and Ligaments
Toward the end of pregnancy, the pelvis must become stretchy for the baby to pass through the birth canal. Thankfully, your body takes care of this, too.
“Hormones cause the softening of joints and ligaments so pelvic bones are able to move and create give,” says Dr. Romano. “Some patients may feel achy hips or that their pelvises are out of whack, and others may feel nothing at all.”
Spoiler alert: The loosening and widening of the pelvis can also make you take on a waddling gait during the third trimester. It may not be your most graceful stride, but rest assured it should return to normal after delivery.
Positioning Baby in the Birth Canal
As you get closer to your due date, people might comment on how your bump has shifted downward. Or, you might notice that it’s suddenly easier to take deep breaths and eat a full meal again. Called “lightening,” this change often refers to the baby dropping and happens when your little one moves farther down into your pelvis.
How do you know for sure when baby drops? Your doctor can tell you how far down into the birth canal your baby has descended. “One way of knowing is if your OB checks you and can feel the baby’s head in the pelvis,” reports Dr. Ross. But lightening doesn’t always happen soon before labor starts. Babies can move down into the pelvic cavity at any time before or even during labor.
Opening Up the Cervix
For nine months your body has kept your unborn baby safe and secure, nestled away from the world in the amniotic sac. But during the final stretch of pregnancy, it’s preparing to let your little one exit.
“The cervix is changing in structure. It needs to go from this tight sphincter—with a thick mucus plug protecting the baby from infection and keeping everything inside, despite things like contractions and gravity—to getting ready to open in a short amount of time,” Dr. Romano says.
Under normal circumstances, the cervix is usually 3 to 4 centimeters long, according to Dr. Ross. As you get closer to week 40 of pregnancy, the length of the cervix starts to shorten. It pulls up into the uterus under the weight of the baby and the action of hormones. This is called effacement.
The round opening of the cervix that leads into the uterus is also changing. It dilates or opens, to allow your baby to pass from the uterus to the birth canal. For some, the process of effacement and dilation can happen slowly throughout the last few weeks of pregnancy. For others, the cervix might not dilate or efface until just before the first stage of labor begins. Your OB can let you know during an internal exam (also called a cervical check) how effaced and dilated you are, if at all. What’s typical? “For first-time moms who come in during early labor, their cervix may be 1 to 2 centimeters dilated,” suggests Dr. Ross.
As the cervix dilates, the mucus plug that acted like a cork during pregnancy will fall out, and you might notice it while using the bathroom. You could also see more blood-tinged vaginal discharge because of cervical changes taking place, including what’s called the “bloody show.” The name sounds scary, but it’s nothing to be alarmed about. It’s just a clear mucus discharge tinted pink or red from capillaries that have ruptured during the process, and it’s another sign that your little one will be coming soon.
When you see signs that it won’t be long until you meet your baby, try not to stress. Relax, knowing that your body is primed and ready, and your healthcare providers will take good care of you during this special journey, no matter how your birth unfolds. You’ve got this!