Is this topic for you?
This topic covers how preterm labor affects the pregnant woman. If you want to know how it affects the baby after he or she is born, see the topic
What is preterm labor?
Preterm labor is labor that comes too early—between 20 and 37 weeks of pregnancy.
In labor, the
uterus contracts to open the
cervix . This is the first stage of childbirth. In a full-term pregnancy, this doesn't happen until at least week 37.
Preterm labor is also called premature labor.
What are the risks of preterm labor and preterm birth?
The earlier a baby is delivered, the higher the chances are that he or she will have serious problems. This is because many of the baby's organs—especially the heart and lungs—aren't fully grown yet.
infants born before 24 weeks of pregnancy, the chances of survival are
extremely slim. Many who do survive have long-term health problems. They may
also have trouble with learning and talking and with
moving their body (poor motor skills).
What causes preterm labor?
preterm labor include:
- The placenta separating early from the uterus. This is called
- Being pregnant with more
than one baby, such as twins or triplets.
- An infection in the
mother's uterus that leads to the start of labor.
- Problems with
the uterus or cervix.
- Drug or alcohol use during
- The mother's water (amniotic fluid)
breaking before contractions start.
Often the cause isn't
doctor uses medicine or other methods to start labor early because of pregnancy
problems that are dangerous to the mother or her baby.
What are the symptoms?
It can be hard to tell when
labor starts, especially when it starts early. So watch for these
- Regular contractions for an hour. This means about 4 or more in
20 minutes, or about 8 or more within 1 hour, even after you have had a glass
of water and are resting.
- Leaking or gushing of fluid from your
vagina. You may notice that it is pink or reddish. This is called a rupture of membranes, also known as your water breaking. When this happens before contractions start, it's called premature rupture of membranes, or PROM. When it happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy, it is called preterm premature rupture of membranes, or pPROM.
- Pain that feels
like menstrual cramps, with or without diarrhea.
- A feeling of
pressure in your pelvis or lower belly.
- A dull ache in your lower
back, pelvic area, lower belly, or thighs that doesn't go away.
Not feeling well, including having a fever you can't explain and being overly
tired. Your belly may hurt when you press on it.
If your contractions stop, they may have been
Braxton Hicks contractions. These are a sometimes
uncomfortable—but not painful—tightening of the uterus. They are like
practice contractions. But sometimes it can be hard to tell the
How is preterm labor diagnosed?
If you think you
have symptoms of preterm labor, call your doctor or certified nurse-midwife. He
or she can check to see if your water has broken, if you have an infection, or
if your cervix is starting to dilate.
You may also have urine and blood tests
to check for problems that can cause preterm labor.
Checking the baby's
heartbeat and doing an
ultrasound can give your doctor or midwife a good
picture of how your baby is doing. Amniotic fluid can be tested for signs that
your baby's lungs have grown enough for delivery.
You may have a
painless swab test for a protein in the vagina called fetal fibronectin. If the
test doesn't find the protein, then you are unlikely to deliver soon. But the
test can't tell for certain if you are about to have a preterm birth.
How is it treated?
If you are in preterm labor,
your doctor or certified nurse-midwife must compare the risks of early delivery
with the risks of waiting to deliver. Depending on your situation, your
doctor or midwife may:
- Try to delay the birth with medicine. This may or may not
- Use antibiotics to treat or prevent infection. If your
amniotic sac has broken early, you have a high risk of infection and must be
- Give you steroid medicine to help prepare your baby's lungs for
- Treat any other medical problems causing trouble
- Allow the labor to go on because delivery is safer
for the mother and baby than letting the pregnancy go on.
Frequently Asked Questions