The Pressure Wave Puzzle

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, because the transition between warm-up waves and true birthing waves is a slow progression. For me, personally, it’s a very frustrating, discouraging, and emotionally draining time of pregnancy.

That being said, there are certain ways to distinguish between warm-up waves and true birthing waves, which hold true for most women.


Signs that Pressure Waves are True Birthing Waves:

  1. 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.
  2. How intense are the waves? Some women may not feel warm-up pressure waves, or not feel all 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 start to become more intense, and a woman may want to close her eyes and breathe more deeply through them. But when true birthing waves begin, they require much more concentration (and Hypno-moms will want to use their hypnosis techniques to remain completely comfortable).
  3. How long are the waves? Warm-up pressure waves can vary in length, but often they are under 60 seconds long. Mine tend to be anywhere from just 15 seconds to 45 seconds. Very occasionally, I’ll experience a wave lasting a minute or longer. When true birthing waves begin, they are usually at least one minute long, consistently.
  4. Is there a pattern to the waves? My warm-up waves are very sporadic. Sometimes, I will experience several back to back, or feel them every 5 minutes for up to an hour, but the pattern doesn’t hold. I may have a wave, and then another in 20 minutes, and then in 15 minutes, and then in 30, and then in 5, etc. There is no real pattern to them, even though they sometimes come frequently. The length and strength of the 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.
  5. 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. 


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 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, they are helpful signs for most women. Aside from those factors, there are also a few “clues” regarding the difference between warm-up and true birthing waves.


Clues that Pressure Waves Might Be True Birthing Waves:

  1. 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 actually separate events that often occur at the same time, but it seems to be a matter of opinion. 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. 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.
  2. 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, but rather at some later point during the birth process. That being said, 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.
  3. 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 serious than they should be before 37 weeks, and has concerns about pre-term birthing, then listening to Hypnobabies’ “Baby Stay In” hypnosis track could be a wise choice.) After 37 weeks, and as the baby’s “guess 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.

For myself, I feel encouraged during the waiting time by reminding myself that baby will come, that it becomes more and more likely with each passing day, and that my body is warming up, which is clearly what it needs to do. Personally, my faith plays the biggest role in keeping my peace during this time. I remind myself to trust God, because He knows the best time for my baby to be born, and I remind myself that it will be soon, even if “soon” means another 4 weeks.

Waiting is hard, and obsessing over birthing waves can be easy to do. These feelings are valid. But in the end, I’ve found it best to choose to let go of my attempts to control the birth process, and simply trust.

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