40 Weeks Pregnant With No Sign of Labor: What to Do When You're Overdue

What's the best thing to do when you're pregnant and overdue? Don't stress!

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Photo: LeelaSae/shutterstock.com

Ask any individual whose pregnancy went into extra innings what happened and they'll all say the same thing: Right around the due date, the phone calls, emails, and texts start coming. "Is anything happening?" "What does the doctor say?" Playing the waiting game is hard, but it becomes especially difficult when you're 40 weeks pregnant—or 41 or 42. But what should you do when you're overdue? When contractions have yet to start and there's no sign of labor? Well, relax, breathe, and remember your due date is just an estimate. In fact, researchers estimate that over 10% of pregnancies last 41 weeks or longer.

"No one should feel nervous or anxious if they're still pregnant past their due date," says Alex C. Vidaeff, M.D., M.P.H., an OB-GYN and maternal-fetal medicine researcher and practitioner at Texas Children's Hospital in Houston. Due dates are tricky because it's hard to pinpoint the exact age of a fetus. Reasons for this include irregular periods (since due dates are calculated based on a perfect 28-day cycle), inaccurate menstrual history presented to the doctor, and mistaking spotting during very early pregnancy for a period.

Doctors usually use several methods together to make their best estimate of a due date, including:

  • Calculation based on your last ovulation (the most reliable method)
  • Calculation based on the first day of your last menstrual period
  • Clinical examination of the uterus for size
  • Your first detection of fetal movement (the fetus usually makes its first movements between 16 and 20 weeks)
  • Fetal heartbeat (in normal pregnancies, the doctor can detect it between 18 and 20 weeks)
  • Ultrasound, which during early pregnancy can estimate fetal age within seven to 10 days (it's not as effective later in the pregnancy)

Even so, the reality is that 80% of babies arrive between 38 and 42 weeks of pregnancy, so your due date window is much bigger than you might think. "You might really be 39 weeks when you think you're at 40," says Dr. Vidaeff, adding that pregnancy length is, in many cases, genetically determined.

The Risks of Going Past Due Date

Less than 1 out of every 10 babies is officially overdue, which means that the baby is born after 42 weeks of pregnancy. Research has shown that delivery after 40 weeks may come with certain risks, and OB-GYNs have responded. "We now change our clinical practices at 40 weeks to prevent potential complications," says Carri R. Warshak, M.D., an OB-GYN and professor in the department of maternal-fetal medicine at the University of Cincinnati.

While they're rare, complications of having an overdue baby include:

  • The placenta's ability to provide the baby with adequate oxygen and nutrients may be compromised.
  • The volume of essential amniotic fluid may decline as the baby grows (this increases the possibility of a pinched umbilical cord).
  • The possibility of fetal distress increases.
  • The baby could grow too large to pass safely through the birth canal (also known as macrosomia).

At the 40-week mark, your doctor or midwife will become more vigilant about monitoring the overdue baby. "Expect twice-a-week visits if you go past 40 weeks," says Sheryl A. Ross, M.D., an OB-GYN in private practice in Santa Monica, California. Methods that your physician can use to monitor your post-term baby's condition are:

  • Kick count: A "kick count" is a record you keep of how often your baby moves. Your doctor will tell you to contact them immediately should you notice your baby suddenly decreases their movements. This could be a sign of fetal distress, which would require immediate testing to determine your baby's condition to assess whether delivery should be initiated quickly.
  • Nonstress test: This test, a type of electronic fetal monitoring, uses a special instrument to measure how your baby's heart reacts when their body moves. This helps the doctor determine if your baby is in distress.
  • Contraction stress test: When your uterus contracts, this test (which is another form of electronic fetal monitoring) measures your baby's heart rate with a special instrument. It helps determine your baby's condition during labor and allows your doctor to see if there's any fetal distress.
  • Ultrasound: Your doctor can determine your baby's size, position, breathing rate, heartbeat, and body movements with an ultrasound. Ultrasound is also useful in determining how much amniotic fluid surrounds your baby. This is important to determine because insufficient amniotic fluid for prolonged periods can cause labor complications. In addition, your doctor can assess the size and position of the placenta using ultrasound. This information is important for your doctor to know because the placenta provides your baby with life-sustaining oxygen. Plus, "if the fetus weighs more than 8 pounds, 13 ounces, you may have difficulty pushing during labor, and using a forceps or vacuum may be necessary for delivery," says Dr. Warshak.

40 Weeks Pregnant With No Signs of Labor

After 39 or 40 weeks, it's sometimes best to deliver sooner rather than later. Studies have shown that newborn admissions to the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) increase slightly when a pregnancy lasts 40 to 42 weeks. And stillbirth, though rare, becomes a concern. At 40 weeks, the risk of stillbirth is approximately 2 to 3 per 1,000 babies; at 42 weeks, it's 4 to 7 per 1,000. If labor hasn't started spontaneously, you'll probably be induced at 41 weeks—at the latest. "If your cervix has started to dilate, odds are in your favor for a successful induction," Dr. Warshak says. Translation: You probably won't end up having a Cesarean section.

Whether or not you'll be induced depends on your own health, the status of your cervix, and the baby's well-being as determined by a non-invasive procedure called fetal non-stress testing. The conditions inside your uterus past the due date may also stress the baby during labor and vaginal delivery. As a result, Dr. Warshak says, "Even if your cervix is at 8 centimeters and labor is progressing, we'll do a C-section if the overdue baby is not tolerating labor well."

The Midwife Philosophy

Midwives tend to wait a little longer for induction than OB-GYNs do. "In our practice, we wait until 42 weeks to go into labor naturally," says Joanne Hasman, C.N.M., a certified nurse-midwife at Special Beginnings Birth and Women's Center in Arnold, Md. "If they don't by then, we schedule an induction at our hospital. We also try natural methods, including acupuncture, reflexology, or reiki."

At 40 to 41 weeks, if your cervix is dilated at least 2 centimeters, the midwives in Hasman's practice perform what's called a "cervical sweep," using a finger to separate the cervix from the amniotic sac. This can sometimes kick-start labor. "If the person is really ready [to go into labor], I'll see her back here in 24 to 36 hours," Hasman says.

The C-Section Question

An ongoing concern has been whether induction, as opposed to what's known as expectant management (waiting for labor to start spontaneously while monitoring the parent and baby's well-being), might lead to a higher risk for emergency Cesarean section, and studies have been conflicting. However, a comprehensive 2018 study funded by the National Institutes of Health actually found that inducing labor at week 39 is not connected with higher C-section rates compared with waiting for labor to begin spontaneously. In fact, researchers found that the rates of surgical intervention were lower in the group that was induced by a rate of 18.6% compared with 22.2% for the expectant management group.

Waiting for An Overdue Baby: 6 Things To Do

Backaches, heartburn, hemorrhoids—at 40 weeks all you want to do is hold your baby in your arms. Here are a few tips to help you cope:

Get a massage

Some Eastern healers believe that certain pressure points on the hands and feet may stimulate the body's natural labor process, although Dr. Ross says this hasn't been proven. Even if you can't get your tired bod to a prenatal massage therapist, asking your partner to give you a rubdown might help your aching back, not to mention your mood.

Become a spice girl

Sadly, there's no magic meal that's guaranteed to bring on labor (although there's that famous maternity salad dressing that some swear by). Still, Dr. Ross has had several clients report that things, ahem, got moving after they indulged in a spicy meal. Spicy foods fall into that "can't hurt, might help" category, and we say that once you're more than 40 weeks pregnant with no signs of labor, you've earned the right to eat your baby's weight in Mexican food.

Have an orgasm or two

Remember what we said about distraction? The hormone oxytocin surges when you have an orgasm, which can trigger labor in at-term individuals. So, the more orgasms, the better!

Keep moving

We're not saying that exercising is easy when you're 40 weeks pregnant with a baby overdue, but try to stay active. Although stretching, doing prenatal yoga, or going for a short walk aren't likely to bring on labor, they're all good for you and your baby. (But don't overdo it: If you do go into labor, you don't want to be tuckered out from the get-go!)

Stay off social media

At this point in pregnancy, it's acceptable (and maybe even advised) to pretty much avoid anyone and everyone, both in the flesh and online, who isn't your medical practitioner, your partner, or your family. In other words, anyone who might ask if you're still pregnant. Keep family and friends up-to-date with a daily blog entry, such as: "Just visited the doc, who said everything's fine." Record a new voicemail with an upbeat message: "No, baby's not here yet. Thankfully, we're all healthy. Keep checking this message for daily updates!"

Make good use of your time

If your baby is overdue, take advantage of the time to catch up on sleep, finish the nursery, and stock your larder with ready-made meals. Also, consider addressing birth announcements and thank-you notes.

The Bottom Line

It can be frustrating or disappointing when your due date comes and goes but you're still pregnant. But don't worry, you'll be in labor—and your little sweetie will be in your arms—before you know it. In the meantime, enjoy your last days of pregnancy (as best you can) and consult your doctor about any concerning symptoms or questions you have.

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