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Understanding Preterm Labor

Going into labor before your 37th week of pregnancy is called preterm labor. Preterm labor can cause your baby to be born too soon. This can lead to a number of health problems that may affect your baby.

Cross section of uterus showing baby inside. Cervix is closed.
Before labor, the cervix is thick and closed.
Cross section of uterus showing baby inside. Cervix is thin and slightly open.
In preterm labor, the cervix begins to efface (thin) and dilate (open).

Symptoms of Preterm Labor

If you believe you’re having preterm labor, get medical help right away. But contractions alone don’t mean you’re in preterm labor. What matters more are changes in your cervix (the lower end of the uterus). Symptoms of preterm labor include:

  • Strong waves of muscle tightening in the uterus (contractions)

  • Four or more contractions per hour

  • Constant menstrual-like cramping

  • Low back pain

  • Mucous or bloody vaginal discharge

  • Bleeding or spotting in the second or third trimester

Woman lying on exam table with feet in stirrups. Healthcare provider is sitting between woman's legs.
A pelvic exam can help your doctor find out whether your cervix has thinned and opened.

Evaluating Preterm Labor

Your health care provider will try to find out whether you’re in preterm labor or whether you’re just having contractions. He or she may watch you for a few hours. The following tests may be done:

  • Pelvic exam to see if your cervix has effaced (thinned) and dilated (opened)

  • Uterine activity monitoring to detect contractions

  • Fetal monitoring to check the health of your baby

  • Ultrasound to check your baby’s size and position

  • Amniocentesis to check the maturity of your baby’s lungs

Caring for Yourself At Home

If you have contractions preterm but your cervix is still thick and closed, your health care provider may ask you to do the following at home:

  • Drink plenty of water.

  • Do fewer activities.

  • Rest in bed on your side.

  • Avoid intercourse and nipple stimulation.

When to Call Your Doctor

Call your health care provider if you notice any of these:

  • Four or more contractions per hour

  • Leaking fluid from the vagina

  • Bleeding or spotting

If You Need Hospital Care

Preterm labor often requires that you have hospital care and complete bed rest. You may have an IV line to get fluids. And you may be given pills or an injection to help prevent contractions. Finally, you may receive medication (corticosteroids) to help your baby’s lungs mature more quickly.

Are You At Risk?

Any pregnant woman can have preterm labor. It may start for no reason. But these risk factors can increase your chances:

  • Past preterm labor or past early birth

  • Smoking and drug or alcohol use during pregnancy

  • Multiple fetuses (twins or more)

  • Problems with the shape of the uterus

  • Bleeding during the pregnancy

The Dangers of Preterm Birth

A baby born too soon may have health problems. This is because the baby didn’t have enough time to mature. The baby then is at risk of:

  • Having immature lungs

  • Bleeding in the brain

  • Dying

Reaching Term

Your goal is to get as close to term as you can before giving birth. The closer you get to term, the higher your chance of having a healthy baby. Work with your health care provider. Together, you can take steps that may keep you from giving birth too early.

Author: StayWell Custom Communications
Last Annual Review Date: 9/30/2014
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