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Get ready for labor

  • Use a birth plan to make choices about childbirth.
  • Take a childbirth education class.
  • If you’re healthy, wait for labor to begin on its own.
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Why at least 39 weeks is best for your baby

This article is for women thinking about scheduling their baby's birth.

More and more births are being scheduled a little early for non-medical reasons. Experts are learning that this can cause problems for both mom and baby. If possible, it's best to stay pregnant for at least 39 weeks. If your pregnancy is healthy, wait for labor to begin on its own. You can help get the message out with your own Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait T-shirt.

We know you can’t wait to meet your baby face to face. But getting to at least 39 weeks gives your baby the time he needs to grow. Lots of important things happen to your baby in the last few weeks of pregnancy. For example, your baby's brain and lungs are still developing.

You may not have a choice about when to have your baby. If there are problems with your pregnancy or your baby's health, you may need to have your baby early. But if you have a choice and you're planning to schedule your baby's birth, wait until at least 39 weeks.

Why do babies need at least 39 weeks?
Babies born too early may have more health problems at birth and later in life than babies born later. Being pregnant 39 weeks gives your baby's body all the time it needs to grow.

Here's why your baby needs 39 weeks:

  • Important organs, like his brain, lungs and liver, get the time they need to develop.
  • He is less likely to have vision and hearing problems after birth.
  • He has time to gain more weight in the womb. Babies born at a healthy weight have an easier time staying warm than babies born too small.
  • He can suck and swallow and stay awake long enough to eat after he's born. Babies born early sometimes can't do these things.

Can scheduling an early birth cause problems for you and your baby?
Yes. Experts are learning that scheduling an early birth for non-medical reasons can cause problems for mom and baby. Below are examples of problems that can happen when a birth is scheduled too soon for a non-medical reason.

Your due date may not be exactly right.
Sometimes it's hard to know just when you got pregnant. Even with an ultrasound, your due date can be off by as much as 2 weeks. If you schedule to induce labor or schedule a cesarean birth (also called a c-section) and your date is off by a week or 2, your baby may be born too early.

Inducing labor may cause problems for you and your baby.
These can include:

  • Stronger and more frequent contractions. This happens for many women. Contractions are when the muscles of your uterus get tight and then relax.
  • Possible infections
  • Uterine rupture. This is when the uterus tears during labor. It happens very rarely.

Inducing labor may not work.
If your labor is induced, the medicine your doctor or certified nurse-midwife (also called CNM) gives you may not start your labor. When this happens, you may need to have a c-section.

A c-section can cause problems for your baby.
Babies born by c-section may have more breathing and other medical problems than babies born by vaginal birth. (Most babies are born by vaginal birth. The mother's uterus contracts to help push the baby out through the vagina, also called the birth canal.)

C-sections can cause problems in future pregnancies.
Once you have a c-section, you may be more likely in future pregnancies to have a c-section. The more c-sections you have, the more problems you and your baby may have, including problems with the placenta.

A c-section is major surgery for mom.
It takes longer for you to recover from a c-section than from a vaginal birth. You can expect to spend 2 to 4 days in the hospital after a c-section. Then you need about 4 to 6 weeks after you go home to fully recover. You also may have complications from the surgery, like infections and bleeding. So it's important to stay in touch with your health care provider even after you go home.

The March of Dimes Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait®™ education campaign and obstetric provider groups advise that you wait until at least 39 weeks to induce labor or have a c-section if it is needed. Wait this long unless there are medical problems that make it necessary to have your baby earlier.

The Healthy Babies are Worth the Wait™ education campaign was developed in response to the growing number of inductions and c-sections prior to 39 weeks for non-medical reasons. Campaign messaging is not intended for mothers who have their babies early for medical reasons or who go into early labor on their own

What questions can you ask your provider about scheduling your baby’s birth?
If you’re planning to schedule your baby’s birth, print out this article and take it with you to your next prenatal care checkup. Ask you these questions:

If your doctor or CNM recommends that you have your baby before 39 weeks:

  • Is there a problem with my health or the health of my baby that may make me need to have my baby early?
  • Can I wait to have my baby until I’m closer to 39 weeks?

About inducing labor

  • Why do you need to induce labor?
  • How will you induce my labor?
  • Will inducing labor increase the chance that I’ll need to have a c-section?

About c-section

  • Why do I need to have a c-section?
  • What problems can a c-section cause for me and my baby?
  • Can I have a vaginal birth in future pregnancies?

Last reviewed September 2012

See also: Inducing labor, C-section: Medical reasons, Vaginal birth after cesarean, Infographic: Healthy babies are worth the wait

Signs of preterm labor

  • Contractions every 10 minutes or more often
  • Change in vaginal discharge
  • Pelvic pressure
  • Low, dull backache
  • Cramps that feel like your period
  • Abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea

Frequently Asked Questions

Do I need a birth plan?

You don't have to have a birth plan. But having one is a great idea! A birth plan is a set of instructions you make about your baby's birth. It tells your provider how you feel about things like who you want with you during labor, what you want to do during labor, if you want drugs to help with labor pain, and if there are special religious or cultural practices you want to have happen once your baby is born. Fill out a birth plan with your partner. Then share it with your provider and with the nurses at the hospital or birthing center where you plan to have your baby. Share it with your family and other support people, too. It's best for everyone to know ahead of time how you want labor and birth to be.

What are Braxton-Hicks contractions?

You may feel Braxton-Hicks contractions starting early in your third trimester. They're usually painless but can be uncomfortable. They are different from true labor contractions. Braxton-Hicks don't come in a regular pattern, and they don't get closer over time. They may stop when you walk, change positions or rest. They may happen more often in the evening, especially if you're dehydrated. They may be weak and stay that way, or there may be a few strong ones followed by weak ones. You usually feel them in the lower abdomen and groin. True labor contractions come in regular intervals, get closer together and steadily stronger, and last 30 to 90 seconds. They don't go away, no matter what you do. The pain usually starts in the back and wraps around to the front. If you're having any kind of contractions and think you might be in labor, call your provider.

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