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How to Understand the Final Weeks of Pregnancy

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 The last weeks of pregnancy can be an exciting, yet nerve-wracking time. You are awaiting the arrival of your baby and probably also watching your body closely for signs of labor. Every little pain or odd sensation may have you wondering if labor is about to start. Fortunately, there are several things you can use to see how your body is progressing towards labor, identify signs of true labor, and take care of yourself in the final weeks of your pregnancy.

Tracking Your Progress Towards Labor

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    Expect colostrum production in the last weeks of pregnancy. Your body is gearing up to make breastmilk for your baby, and you might even notice that your nipples leak a little breastmilk as you approach your due date. This is likely colostrum, which is the thick, nutritious milk that your body makes for your newborn baby.[1]
    • If it bothers you, then you can place pads in your bra to catch the fluid and prevent it from soaking through your shirt.

    Tip: Colostrum will be present in the final weeks of pregnancy and immediately after childbirth whether you choose to breastfeed or not. However, if you give your baby formula instead, then your body will stop producing breastmilk after your baby is born.

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    Watch for signs that your baby has "dropped." In the final weeks of pregnancy, your baby will begin to move deeper into your pelvis in preparation for birth. This is also known as "lightening." When you experience lightening, you may notice that you can breathe a little easier and that your heartburn goes away. However, this may also mean even more trips to the bathroom because there will be increased pressure on your bladder.[2]
    • Keep in mind that not all women will notice this symptom and it is not a predictor of when you will give birth. Lightening may happen a few days to a few weeks before labor begins.
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    Breathe and try to relax if you have a contraction. You may be experiencing Braxton Hicks contractions, also known as false labor or practice contractions. Unlike true labor contractions, Braxton Hicks contractions will not intensify and lead to childbirth. If it is a Braxton Hicks contraction, then it will:[3]
    • Last for about 30 to 60 seconds. Use your watch or a contraction timer app on your phone to see how long the contraction lasts.
    • Be irregular, infrequent, and unpredictable. If the contraction is not followed by another one for 30 minutes, then 45 minutes, and then 18 minutes, it is likely a Braxton Hicks contraction.
    • Feel more uncomfortable than painful. If you would not describe the sensation as painful, but more like a tightness or odd sensation, then it is likely Braxton Hicks. However, early contractions may start out as discomfort, so use other indicators to help you decide.
    • Taper off and stop altogether. If the contractions move further apart and then stop, then they were likely Braxton Hicks contractions.
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    Ask your healthcare provider to check for effacement. In the final weeks of your pregnancy, your cervix will thin out, and then dilate during labor to allow your baby through. You won’t be able to feel this, but you can ask your doctor or midwife to check to see if you are effaced. This is often part of your checkup in the last few weeks of pregnancy. Your healthcare provider will grade the level of effacement using a percentage.[4]
    • For example, you might hear your healthcare provider say, "You are 75% effaced," which indicates that your cervix is almost completely thinned out and you are getting closer to giving birth.
    • Keep in mind that the level of effacement will not predict how soon you will go into labor. It is only a way for your healthcare provider to check your progress.

Watching for Signs of Labor

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    Expect signs of labor anywhere from weeks 37 to 42. Your due date is not a perfect predictor of when you will have your baby. It is only an estimate. Once you are full term (37 weeks), you may give birth any time within a 5 week window. In some cases, your doctor may recommend inducing labor, such as if you have not given birth by week 42 or earlier if there are health concerns, such as preeclampsia.[5]
    • Premature labor (before 37 weeks) is always a possibility, especially if you are considered high risk. Discuss your risk factors with your doctor.

    Tip: Start developing your birth plan now if you have not already! This is a great way to exercise more control over your childbirth experience.

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    Watch for your mucus plug. Not all women notice this sign of labor, but once your cervix is fully effaced, the mucus plug that is in place to protect your womb will sometimes come loose. You may notice a stringy, bloody substance on the toilet paper when you go to the restroom. If this happens, then labor is likely going to start within the next few days.[6]
    • Be sure to let your healthcare provider know if you think you have lost your mucus plug. They may want to do a quick exam to be sure.
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    Time your contractions if they seem regular or increase in intensity. Regular, increasingly intense contractions will likely be the first sign that you notice. Have your birth partner time the contractions or download an app to time them yourself. If the contractions come at regular intervals and they increase in frequency and intensity, then you may be in labor.[7]
    • For example, if your contractions are 5 minutes apart and last for about 60 seconds each, and they continue to get longer, stronger, and closer together, then you are likely in labor.
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    Go to the hospital if notice a gush of fluid. This could be your water breaking, which is a sure sign that labor is on its way if it has not started already. This fluid is usually clear and odorless, but it may be tinged pink or even red. If it is green or smells foul, then let your doctor know as this may indicate an infection. Also, make sure to note the time that your water broke and tell your healthcare provider.[8]
    • Sometimes urine may be mistaken for water breaking, since women sometimes leak urine in the final weeks of pregnancy. Your healthcare provider can do a quick test to check.
    • Keep in mind that some women’s water will not break even though they are in labor. Go to the hospital if you are having contractions that are increasing in frequency, even if your water has not broken.

Taking Care of Yourself in the Final Weeks

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    Get lots of rest to help with fatigue and aches. It is normal to feel tired and achy during your third trimester, and especially during the last weeks of your pregnancy. To help combat these symptoms, go to bed extra early, take naps when you feel sleepy, and sit or lie down when you feel fatigued.[9]
    • For example, if you normally go to bed at 10:30 pm, then go to bed at 9:30 or 10:00 pm instead.
    • Try taking a nap in the afternoon if you have the urge. Even a short, 20 minute nap can help you to feel refreshed and get through the day.
    • After you have been on your feet for a few hours, sit down on a couch or recliner and put your feet up.
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    Use over-the-counter medicine to ease heartburn. Heartburn is especially common in the final weeks of pregnancy because your baby and uterus are taking up so much space in your belly. Taking a calcium antacid may be all you need if you suffer from occasional heartburn. If your heartburn is more persistent or severe, talk to your doctor about medications that may help.[10]
    • Keep a travel pack of antacids in your purse for treating heartburn on the go.

    Tip: Drinking a glass of milk with your meals and voiding spicy foods may also help to combat your heartburn.

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    Rub lotion on your belly to minimize the appearance of stretch marks. The skin around your belly has been stretched to its limit by the final weeks of pregnancy, so you might have developed a few stretch marks. To minimize the appearance of stretch marks, apply a thick lotion or cream to your stomach, such as something that contains cocoa butter.[11]
    • Apply the lotion right after taking a shower or bath to help it penetrate into your skin.
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    Do Kegels to help strengthen your pelvic floor. As you approach your due date, you may also notice less control over your bladder due to your uterus pressing down on it. Doing Kegels a few times daily may help. To do a Kegel, simply tighten, hold, and release your pelvic floor muscles (the muscles you use to start and stop the flow of urine). Repeat the exercise a few times per day and increase the amount of time you hold as you build strength.[12]
    • Doing Kegels will also help you when it comes time to push during labor since you will be using the same muscles.
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    Indulge in your urge to nest and prepare for your baby’s arrival. In the last few weeks of your pregnancy, you may experience a burst of energy and feel a sense of urgency to get things done. Go along with this urge and take advantage of the energy to accomplish any last minute tasks you have been putting off.[13]
    • For example, you might pack your hospital bag, finish setting up the nursery, or make some freezer meals to keep you fed in the first few weeks after your baby is born.
    • Be careful not to overdo it! Aim to accomplish a few tasks each day and make time to rest and relax when you are done.
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    Take time for yourself and do things you enjoy. Anxiety is common during the final weeks of pregnancy, and maintaining your normal routine at home or work can add to this. Make sure that you allow yourself plenty of down time to rest, relax, and do things that you want to do.[14]
    • For example, you might take a long bath, go for a pedicure, or watch a favorite movie to help yourself relax.
    • You can also try relaxation techniques, such as doing yogameditating, and deep breathing.
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