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Pregnancy is a long and exciting journey for expecting parents. As an expecting mother, you are probably excited (and maybe a little nervous) about your baby’s arrival. Your doctor might have given you the estimated date of birth for your child.
There are some signs and strategies that will help you predict whether baby will be born early or late, including things mom’s body starts to do in preparation for labor, looking over the family history, and understanding how the predicted full-term delivery date was calculated.
There is a lot riding on the birth date of a child, from making sure you have a safe sleeping space for your baby, planning a baby shower, taking parental leave from work, and arranging the support you’ll need during labor, birth, and the first weeks of your baby’s life. Things won’t always go to plan, or happen perfectly on schedule, but there are a few things that can help narrow down the window of when you can expect to welcome your baby.
Understanding the ‘Terms’ of Pregnancy
Normally a pregnancy lasts for 40 to 42 weeks. Sometimes people might give birth three weeks earlier than the normal time. According to the medical term, we know it as preterm birth or premature birth. There are four types of preterm births based on the baby’s early arrival. These are:
- Late preterm: In the case of late preterm, babies are born completing 34 and 36 weeks. Most of the preterm babies are born in the late preterm. Many mothers give birth to babies at the beginning of their 37 weeks of pregnancy. The baby will be fine with proper awareness and care.
- Moderately preterm: This type of preterm can happen within 32 to 34 weeks of pregnancy. The babies need extra care if they are moderately preterm.
- Very preterm: In this case, the babies are born before the mother completes 32 weeks of her pregnancy. Proper care and treatment can save the baby.
- Extremely preterm: This is a severe case of preterm when the baby comes out of the womb in less than 25 weeks. The chance of survival for the infant is very low.
Premature babies are born weeks before their due date and need to be cared for carefully because they’re more fragile.
When is a baby most likely to be born?
Statistically, a first baby who is born spontaneously (without intervention/induction) is most likely to be born at 40 weeks. Each spontaneous subsequent baby is born 0.07 days earlier. There is about a 3-5% chance your baby will be born on their due date.
Is My Baby Coming Early? Signs of Early Birth
There are some signs and symptoms to understand if a baby will be born early. When you have these signs, you should take the necessary steps to be ready for your baby’s arrival. Most of these signs are also symptoms of the normal process of childbirth.
The symptoms are supposed to show a few weeks before your due date, so if they show up earlier it might mean your baby will arrive earlier than expected. The symptoms are:
- Constant back pain: A woman’s body experiences a lot of changes and pains during pregnancy. Back pain is very normal for a pregnant woman. However, having continuous back pain is one sign of going into early labor. Usually, backaches will go away if you keep changing your sitting position. But, if it does not go away, take note.
- Abdominal cramping: You might feel pain in your lower abdomen. The pain will be like the cramps you are used to feeling during your periods. It can also feel you are having gastric problems. abdominal cramps are normal during pregnancy (like Braxton Hicks contractions) but as you reach the end of your pregnancy you may find that the sensations you feel may change.
- Diarrhea: Not just stomach aches, but diarrhea. Having diarrhea a few days before giving childbirth is normal. It’s a common thing to happen just before delivery, as mom’s body prepares itself. Experiencing unexpected diarrhea weeks before your due date Could be an indicator of early birth.
- Continuous contractions: Pregnant women can feel contractions now and then during pregnancy. (read about Braxton Hicks) But regular and continuous contractions are a symptom of preparation for labor. These contractions may not come with the typical labor pains you hear about; there are almost like a practice run! Look out for regularity in these contractions, and reach out to your doctor or midwife if you experience at least one every 10 minutes.
- Baby positions themselves: As you reach the end of your pregnancy, the baby will start to position itself in the cephalic or vertex position; baby’s head will point downward ready for delivery. Most commonly this is around 2 to 3 weeks before the due date of your baby.
- Pelvic pressure: You can feel pressure on your pelvic and lower back area. This is connected to baby’s cephalic position in prep for birth.
- Increased discharge: A mucus plug is a thick lump of mucus which seals your cervix during pregnancy, protecting baby from infection. Generally, this plug becomes dislodged or comes out a few days before birth, but it could be any time in the last month of pregnancy. It is also known as the bloody show, when the mucus is accompanied by blood.
- Dilatation of the cervix: As a preparation for the baby’s arrival your cervix may start to dilate or open up. You’ll usually find this is accompanied with mucus plug discharge.
- Your water breaks: The sudden discharge of thick watery fluid is the most common indicator of your child’s arrival. However, women may not go to labor just because their water broke. Water breaking before 37 weeks is considered to be early though, and once your water has broken baby will be born soon.
Depending on your doctor’s advice, you may also get hints about a possible early birth from vaginal swab tests to investigate biochemical predictors like Fibronectin; a type of glycoprotein. This fluid comes out of your body first before 22 weeks and again after 34 weeks. Your doctor may test you for Fetal fibronectin during check-ups. The presence of fibronectin between 24 and 34 weeks could be a sign of preterm labor.
What Are The Reasons a Baby is Born Early?
There are several reasons your baby can be born earlier than expected, though keep in mind that none of these are guarantees of preterm birth:
- Consumption of alcohol or smoking during pregnancy: Drinking alcohol, and smoking cigarettes are dangerous for both mother and her child. The toxic elements of these substances can affect the efficiency of the placenta and prevent the baby from getting oxygen.
- Poor maternal diet: Poor diet during pregnancy is a factor that strongly elevates the risk of preterm birth.
- Maternal infections: Infections can cause inflammations. The body creates prostaglandin to manage infections, and too much prostaglandin can lead to the induction of labor. (Prostaglandin ‘gels’ are inserted into the vagina to induce labor in some mothers admitted to hospital)
- Mother’s body weight: Some doctors recommend pregnant women gain or lose weight before conceiving to achieve a normal BMI to avoid premature births. Premature birth is more likely for mothers who are underweight or overweight.
- Family history: Premature birth is more likely if the infant’s mother or other siblings were born prematurely.
- Too much stress: After considering the effects of other factors, women who are more stressed during pregnancy are at an increased risk of giving birth early.
- No breaks between pregnancies: After giving birth, it is important for the female body to heal. A woman might become pregnant again soon after giving birth, and this becomes a risk if she gets pregnant shortly after her previous childbirth. Mothers who have closely spaced pregnancies don’t have enough time to recover. They may not get enough protein and other nutrients stored up for the next pregnancy. These stores must then be replenished prior to the next pregnancy, to make sure the next baby gets what it needs.
- Significant maternal trauma shortly before, or during pregnancy: Mothers who experience severe life events in the period shortly before pregnancy, and during pregnancy, are more likely to have preterm and very preterm births.
- Twin / other multiple pregnancy: Another reason for preterm childbirth is when a woman is pregnant with two or more babies; a pregnancy that puts more stress on a mother’s body, and requires the babies to share the resources they need to grow. (which also includes space!)
- Maternal diabetes: A complication of pregnancy for many pregnant women is diabetes. Sometimes a woman develops diabetes during her pregnancy due to the lack of insulin production by the body’s pancreas. Diabetes mellitus (DM) is associated with increased chances of spontaneous preterm birth.
- History of miscarriages: Previous miscarriage increases the risk of preterm and extremely preterm birth. Women with three or more miscarriages have a greater risk of all-cause preterm birth.
What can you do to avoid preterm delivery?
Talk to your doctor if you experience any of these symptoms. You may have early contractions without giving birth prematurely. Your doctor can offer advice on how to delay the delivery and avoid preterm delivery altogether. To reduce your risk, keep these things in mind:
- Stay away from toxic substances: Avoid substances like alcohol, drugs, and cigarettes. Your doctor will be able to recommend programs and other support if you need help to quit.
- Eat healthy food: Eating a well-balanced diet helps increase the health of pregnant women and their growing babies. Research suggests a diet high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) is associated with having a lower risk of premature birth. These fats are found in fish, seeds, and oils. Don’t forget to drink enough water!
- Monitor your weight gain: Being mindful of weight gain during pregnancy for pregnant women may offer protection against preterm labor. A 2013 study (https://bmcpregnancychildbirth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/1471-2393-13-120) found that excessive weight gain among pregnant women is associated with a higher probability of preterm birth.
- Manage chronic medical conditions: Individuals with chronic health conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure, and obesity are more likely to experience preterm labor. Work closely with your health care provider to ensure all of these illnesses are effectively managed and maintained.
- Consider ways to reduce mental and physical stress: It’s important to eat a balanced diet and engage in some form of physical activity each day. It may help to talk to others for support and assistance where possible. You might also speak with your boss about ways you can reduce stress at work without sacrificing productivity.
- Reduce your risk of infections: Washing your hands with soap and water after using the toilet, coughing or blowing your nose is more important than you think. As well as cleanliness, handwashing can prevent infections that could easily catch on surfaces. Eat meat cooked at high enough temperatures to kill germs like salmonella. If you have a cat in the household, someone else can look after the kitty litter for the time being!
- Be aware of your surroundings: Your balance is a little off kilter when you’re pregnant. When using the stairs always use the handrails, and do not walk on slippery floors. If you absolutely need to go on a long journey, make sure you make time for breaks to take a stretch, and have a snack.
- Appropriate exercise: Speak with a doctor to identify the types of exercises that are good for your body while you’re carrying a baby. Exercise is a way to relieve stress and keep your body in the best condition it can be for pregnancy. However, too much exercise can actually have the opposite effect- so be careful!
- Have proper rest: Pregnancy is a demanding time for the body, and so you need to rest. Consider making bed time a little earlier, sleeping in a little more, or making time for naps – especially later in pregnancy.
Is My Baby Coming Late? Signs of a Late Arrival of Baby
Sometimes babies can come late. Any pregnancy lasting beyond the two weeks of the expected due date is considered post-term or prolonged. Normal pregnancies last about 40 weeks, but longer pregnancies can go past 42 weeks (although they are uncommon).
As with preterm births, post-term pregnancies have their own set of symptoms and reasons. As a pregnant woman you’ve been preparing for your expected due date – but will you go overdue?. Here are some signs which may mean your baby will make a later entry in to the world:
- No baby drop: Naturally, babies settle down lower into the mother’s pelvis about 2-4 weeks before the due date. However, if this does not happen it can be an indicator that your baby may be overdue. You might even find your breathing starts feeling more comfortable!
- No contractions or regular cramping: Around 40 weeks of pregnancy most women should start feeling strong contractions. Contractions are signs that your body is preparing for labor.
- Your mucus plug is still intact: During pregnancy, your body creates a protective seal (mucus plug) for the cervix to block bacteria from entering. It dislodges anywhere from a few days to a few weeks prior to birth.
- Your water has not broken: The amniotic sac, which your unborn baby develops inside of and grows in, contains a fluid called amniotic fluid. When it is time for your child to be born the sac breaks and the fluid is expelled – this is known as your ‘waters breaking’. Most women’s waters break during labor but if labor hasn’t started reach out to your doctor for advice – your baby is now at a greater risk of infection.
- Your doctor observes only minimal cervical changes: The cervical opening needs to be 10cm in circumference for a baby to pass through contractions at the beginning of labor. The process of softening can take many hours before you’re in true active labor. Active laboring takes place when your cervix is dilated 3cm or more. When your pregnancy is at term, your doctor may start monitoring your cervix more closely.
Why are some babies born late?
No one is exactly sure why babies do not show up on their due dates. But, there are some reasons or facts that can influence post-term labor. So, here are the reasons you can look out for:
- Your conception date isn’t quite right: It can sometimes be hard for your doctor to know how far along in the pregnancy you are. The doctor gives a due date based on what information they have at the time, which could be your notes on your last period date, or information they have around medical monitoring. Sometimes these dates aren’t quite right, and you may have the wrong due date given to you.
- This is your first pregnancy: Historically, the average woman gives birth at 40 weeks. But, a first-time mother might give birth to her child between 41 and 42 weeks. Most of these babies are healthy despite their later birthdates. Until they adjust more fully to your body’s changes during pregnancy, it may be slower than usual for you to go into labor and deliver your baby.
- You have a history of post-term birth: Pregnancy is always an unpredictable process. Sometimes second or third pregnancies can come late – if you or your family members have a history of going overdue, it increases your likelihood of post-term birth. It can be common in a family to have a late delivery – ask your mom or grandma what they’ve experienced and if it’s possible for you to have a late delivery, too. It could even be that your partner was born post-term!
- Overweight mothers: Mothers with a higher BMI in the first 3 months of pregnancy are more likely to have an overdue birth. Higher maternal BMI throughout pregnancy are also associated with it being less likely that labour will start spontaneously at or before the 40th week of gestation.
- You’re carrying a baby boy: After 43 weeks of pregnancy, there will be 3 boys born for every 2 girls.
What will my doctor do if I am overdue?
If your due date has come and gone and you’re still carrying your baby, you can rest assured that you will continue to receive medical care. In fact, your doctor will expect to see more of you than before! At each visit, he or she can expect to measure how big the baby is and monitor the heart rate, check for position changes etc.
Doctors recommend extra monitoring and medical tests for you and your baby around 40 or 41 weeks. They’ll also ask you to make a record of your baby’s movements [by counting kicks].
Pregnancy is a wonderful time full of unpredictable circumstances. Babies can come at any time, which is both an exciting and scary thing! If I were to offer you any advice, it would be to try to keep calm, take advice from your doctor and nurse, but also listen to your body. No one knows you, and your baby, like you do. You’ve got this!