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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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What is full term?

To help more babies be born healthy, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) and the Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine (SMFM) recently changed the way they define births that happen after 37 weeks of pregnancy.

Pregnancy usually lasts about 40 weeks (280 days) from the first day of your last menstrual period (also called LMP) to your due date. Your due date is the date that your provider thinks you will have your baby.

ACOG and SMFM now define a full-term pregnancy as a pregnancy that lasts between 39 weeks, 0 days and 40 weeks 6 days. Babies born full term have the best chance of being healthy, compared with babies born earlier or later.

What are the new definitions?

The definitions are:

  • Early term: Your baby is born between 37 weeks, 0 days and 38 weeks, 6 days.
  • Full term: Your baby is born between 39 weeks, 0 days and 40 weeks, 6 days.
  • Late term: Your baby is born between 41 weeks, 0 days and 41 weeks, 6 days.
  • Postterm: Your baby is born after 42 weeks, 0 days.

 

Why did the definitions change?

In the past, a pregnancy that lasted anywhere between 37 to 42 weeks was called a term pregnancy. Health care providers once thought this 5-week period was a safe time for most babies to be born.

But new research shows that every week of pregnancy counts for the health of your baby. 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. Being pregnant for at least 39 weeks gives your baby’s body the time it needs to grow and develop.

The new definitions can help more babies be born healthy by helping to prevent births that are being scheduled a little early for non-medical reasons. If your pregnancy is healthy, wait for labor to begin on its own.

Last reviewed October 2013

See also: Why at least 39 weeks is best for your baby, Infographic: Healthy babies are worth the wait (.PDF, 707KB)


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.

Have questions?

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