If you’re 38 weeks pregnant, you’re in the home stretch! You’re probably feeling eager and impatient to meet your little one. But even though you may be feeling great overall, it’s important to pay attention to any new symptoms that crop up. After all, they could be a sign that labor is on its way. In this blog post, we’ll explore why a headache at 38 weeks pregnant could be a sign of labor — and what you should do about it.
Please note that the advice in this article is for someone close to their due date — if you’re before 37 weeks, you’ll want to talk with your provider about these labor signs as they may believe it is too early for you to have your baby (preterm labor), and may want to prevent it to help baby “cook” a bit longer in the womb. It is very different when you’re at the end of your pregnancy.
Before we get started though — why should you listen to me?
Hi — I’m Hilary — The Pregnancy Nurse 👩⚕️. I have been a nurse since 1997 and I have 20 years of OB nursing experience, I am also the curly head behind Pulling Curls and The Online Prenatal Class for Couples. 🩺 I have helped thousands of women decide if they are in labor and I’ve also experienced this great confusion 3 times myself, so I’m a great resource for this.
Is a headache ever a sign of labor?
A headache can be a sign of labor for pregnant women, but it isn’t one of the main ones that we look for.
If you are pregnant and experiencing a headache, it is a good idea to consult your health care provider (doctor or midwife) to rule out other potential causes, as a lingering headache can be problematic.
Why can a headache be a problem in your third trimester?
Headaches can be a sign of preeclampisa, which is more likely the further along you are and can be really bad for you and the baby.
Other signs of preeclamipsa include:
- Blurry Vision
- Pain under your ribs on the right side
- Lingering headaches that don’t go away with food and water
- Facial swelling
- Increased blood pressure
Of course, all of those can be signs of other things, but because preeclampisa can sometimes be “hiding” in pregnant women, we take them really seriously.
The good news is that your provider can easily take your blood pressure, do some bloodwork and a urine test to see if this is a problem for you.
Preeclampisa isn’t uncommon during pregnancy, but it is serious and needs to be monitored. In some cases you may need to be induced (as the only way to stop it is to get the placenta & baby out of your womb).
And if you’re pretty confused on how this is all going to begin… do yourself a favor and join me in here. In just a few minutes I can get you prepared on what to watch for, and what you can do in early labor to keep things going (plus, when to know when you should call or go into the hospital).
When Does Labor Start?
The vast majority of women go into labor between 37 and 42 weeks of pregnancy.
But, it can really hard to pinpoint when labor starts. You make wake up just feeling worse than you have in the past few days (hard to say since each day of pregnancy seems to feel like this). You’re crampy and just kind of “bleh”. And then you get a few more symptoms (don’t worry, we’re going to talk more about those below) and suddenly as you’re considering going to the hospital you realize that labor “started” a few hours — but kind of without you really knowing it.
I realize that is a VERY confusing answer, but knowing when labor begins can only truly be pinpointed in hindsight — and even then the start of labor can be hard.
What Are The Early Signs and Symptoms of Labor?
There are a few signs of early signs of labor that you can watch for:
Loss of your mucus plug — while this isn’t a “telltale” sign it’s something that a lot of pregnant people notice has happened in the last week (or weeks) of labor. It shows that the cervix is softening (and we’ll talk more about why that is important down below).
Pro Tip: Many people profess that once you lose your mucus plug labor is 24 to 48 hours away but it isn’t a crystal ball and this is just ONE of the signs to watch for — sometimes it re-creates itself and you’re pregnant for a bit longer.
Changes in vaginal discharge — You might notice that things are just more damp down there. You may notice some brown blood that has come out (brown blood means old blood and is less disconcerting than red blood, although you may have small amounts of bright red spotting as your contractions intensify — if it’s more than spotting you’ll want to call your provider).
Pro Tip: Bleeding in labor is often called “bloody show” — so don’t worry if you hear it called that. Even if it’s gross.
Nausea, diarrhea and possibly vomiting — Your gastrointestinal system is just preparing the way for a smooth delivery. And to do that, they just need to clear out those pathways — doing this. You may not feel very hungry either. Totally normal (although try to have a few snacks that balance carbs and proteins to keep up your energy)
Generalized Malaise — A big term for just not feeling so great, like we talked about above. You may experience feeling achy or a small headache (should likely go away with food and water though). Just not feeling so great (some women think they’re getting sick).
Contractions — I saved this one, since most people are only looking for these. Most people feel like early labor feels very similar to period cramps. They may also feel that “pelvic fullness” (or pelvic pressure) that they feel during a period as well. Contractions may be on your belly or in your back due to baby’s positioning. We will talk morein this post about how contractions may vary as you get into “active labor”.
What’s a contraction? Your uterus is actually a big muscle and it contracts that muscle (just like you do when you’re lifting weights) to help expel baby out. Think of it as a big muscle squeezing baby down into the birth canal.
Your bag of waters breaks — Water breaking is a true sign of labor, and one that can also be kind of hard to tell. Many women can’t really tell if they peed a little bit or if it is amniotic fluid (I actually have a “did my water break quiz” on my sister site). The best thing to do if you’re not sure is to put a pad on (a big one) and lay down for a bit, then stand up and see if more water comes out. You can also try to cough or bear down and see if more water comes out as well. And, if you’re in doubt call your provider. They may have a test in the office, or will refer you to the hospital where they can provider a test called Amnisure that can be sure whether or not your water broke.
What’s this bag of waters? Remember your baby is living in a bag of waters in your uterus. For some women it breaks while they are at home and a gush of fluid comes out.
While it’s fine to wait a bit of time to decide if your water broke, if you’re still wondering after a few hours, call your provider. Once your water breaks, you have an increased risk of infection, and we don’t need that.
Pro Tip: While first-time moms tend to worry about this more, knowing if it’s the “real thing” can be hard no matter what baby you’re on as every labor can feel very different.
True Labor Vs. False Labor
It can be hard to tell the difference between true labor and false labor. Here are some ways to tell the difference:
• Contractions are usually regular and get stronger and closer together over time.
• Back pain is often a sign of true labor — although a constant lower back pain can be normal pregnancy stuff (if it’s a new symptom that might be different)
• You may feel a sense of “fullness” in your pelvis (like we talked about before)
• Your amniotic sac may break (this only happens in about 15% of women – unlike the movies).
• Progresses into your baby being born.
Some people call these braxton hicks contractions, or “practice contractions”
• Contractions are usually irregular and do not get stronger or closer together over time.
• Contractions go away with standing or laying down (either one)
• You are only seeing one of those labor signs. They usually come a few at a time.
• It goes away, or becomes less intense
Just because contractions go away for a bit, doesn’t mean they can’t come back… so just keep doing your thing.
If you’re ever unsure whether you’re in labor or not, the best thing to do is to contact your healthcare provider. They will be able to help you determine whether you should come in or not.
Most providers have an after hours line where you can contact someone with these types of questions. If not, you can try labor and delivery at your hospital and see what they recommend you do.
Also, since this seems so crazy confusing we do talk a lot about it in this class, it can really clarify things.
What To Do In Early Labor?
It can be hard when you’re waiting to decide if labor is really going to take off or not — but here are a few things you can do:
Drink water — “false labor” is often caused by dehydration, so drink two GIANT glasses of water if you think you’re contracting. The added bonus is that being hydrated makes it easier for your nurses to put in an IV if you go to the hospital.
Sleep — whatever rest you can get is a big win for your body at this point so make sure that you’re sleeping when possible.
Move — when you’re NOT sleeping, I think it’s great to change your position every 30 minutes, and if you have the energy maybe go on a walk or….
Clean — I know, this sounds miserable. But cleaning often shifts your hips, and gets you in positions that will help the baby find their best way out. It takes your mind off of things, and nesting can actually feel really good once you get into it. PLUS you get the added bonus of having a clean house. Just make sure you’re not using strong cleaning products (I love vinegar and water) and that your partner helps out because no one needs the unsupportive partner watching TV while his partner in labor is cleaning his house. AmIright?
Cook — If cleaning isn’t your thing, you can always take the time to prepare a few freezer meals to have around after baby is born. Super handy to have around!
Get together your birth plan — Maybe you’ve had some thoughts about what you want at your birth — might be a good time to gather those so you’re prepared to talk with your healthcare team
Watch Baby’s movements — You still want to track fetal movements and make sure that baby is still kickin’ in there. Changes in fetal movements should trigger a call to your provider or a trip to labor and delivery.
Pack that hospital bag — Yes, I really think most people have time to pack it in early labor, so beyond the 3 things that are MUST HAVES (I mention them in my hospital packing list) I normally tell people they’re fine to gather stuff up in early labour.
Can labor start and stop over days?
Yes, labor can start and stop over the course of several days. Women may feel regular contractions for some time before they go into active labor. True labor is when contractions become regular and more intense, and the cervix begins to dilate.
Active labor is truly when the cervix starts to open and baby’s head is moving down into the birth canal.
And, that sort of means that we need to do a vaginal exam to check your dilation and where baby is in the birth canal (called baby’s station). Although there are some other things to watch for, a vaginal exam is the best way to know if things are progressing.
Pro Tip: There are a few stages of labor that every labor experiences (although in varying durations for each pregnant person).
This can be REALLY frustrating, but keep living your life — and doing the things I mention above to keep yourself healthy, and strong for when labor is finally ready to descend upon you!
When to Call Your Healthcare Provider and Go to the Hospital
Make SURE that you ask your provider about what they recommend for YOU at your NEXT appointment. This can vary due to obstetrical history, traffic, how far away you live (and don’t get me started on hospital parking situations).
That being said, most say contractions at regular intervals of 3-5 minutes that you can’t talk through lasting 30 minutes to an hour (with first baby’s contractions needing to be closer to 3, and moms who’ve already have babies can be a bit further apart).
And, as I said above most providers have someone to take phone calls on for them in the night time (and at the office during the daytime), so making a phone call can put your mind at ease over what to watch for.
Remember the hospital does a lot of labor checks and a good percentage of those people we send home to labor a bit longer in a place they are comfortable. A false alarm isn’t something to be embarassed about. It’s nice to know that both you and the baby are safe.
If you’re 38 weeks pregnant and have a headache, it could be a sign of labor, but a lingering headache should send you into your provider. By paying attention to your body and knowing what’s normal for you, you can help ensure a healthy delivery for both you and your baby! I wish you the very best for the birth of your baby!
Now is the time to feel more confident about the labor room. Come join me in The Online Prenatal Class for Couples where we prepare BOTH of you for the confident hospital delivery that you are looking for. In just a few hours time you can feel SO much better about your birth!
And, if you’re not quite sure you’re ready for that whole thing, check out my free prenatal class. It’s your first step toward getting in the driver’s seat of your birth.
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A nurse since 1997, she has worked in various fields including pediatrics, geriatrics & hospice.
She has 20 years of labor and delivery experience in the San Jose, CA and Phoenix, AZ areas.