Preterm labor is contractions that are regular and lead to changes in the uterine cervix after week 20 and before week 37 of pregnancy. You can work out how far through your pregnancy you are with our due date calculator. When contractions make the cervix become thinner (effacement) or open up (dilation), it can lead to the baby being born early.
Premature birth is associated with different risks and complications for your baby. The earlier a preterm birth occurs, the riskier it is for the baby. It’s not uncommon for premature babies to require special medical care or a stay in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). In some cases, premature babies can develop long-term physical and developmental complications.
Certain risk factors have been found to increase the likelihood of going into preterm labor; however, people who don’t have any risk factors can still experience it.
The symptoms of preterm labor are similar to the symptoms of full-term labor, but they come earlier than expected. The signs of early labor may include:
- Constant lower back pain
- Abdominal cramping
- Regular uterine contractions
- Feeling pressure in the lower abdomen or pelvis
- Light spotting or vaginal bleeding
- Watery or mucose vaginal discharge that may be tinged with blood
- A trickle or gush of fluid in the event of preterm membrane rupture
It’s important to be able to distinguish true contractions from Braxton-Hicks contractions. Real contractions progressively become more frequent, intense, and prolonged. Braxton-Hicks contractions, on the other hand, are random and don’t get stronger. These contractions don’t lead to labor.
However, you should contact your doctor if you think you’re experiencing preterm labor. Even if you aren’t, it’s always better to be safe and have your doctor make sure that both you and your baby are okay.
Although any pregnant person can experience preterm labor, certain factors may increase the likelihood of going into labor early. Some of these factors include:
- History of premature labor or births
- Pregnant with twins or multiples
- Having a short interval (less than six months) between pregnancies
- Certain infectious conditions, particularly ones that affect the genital tract or amniotic fluid (chorioamnionitis)
- Abnormalities in the uterus, cervix, or placenta
- Having too much amniotic fluid (polyhydramnios)
- Alcohol or substance abuse
- Stressful life events
- Urinary tract infections (UTI) during pregnancy
- Periodontal infections during pregnancy
- Fetal birth defects
- Chronic health conditions, including diabetes and high blood pressure
In some cases, preterm labor is induced. This is usually done when it’s safer for the mother or baby to have an earlier delivery. Common causes for this include maternal health conditions, such as preeclampsia, or being pregnant with twins or multiples.
Before it’s induced, preterm labor is planned and discussed with a health care provider. It’s important to discuss your birth plan with your partner and health care providers and to ask any questions that you may have concerning your and your baby’s health.
The main complication associated with early labor is the delivery of a preterm baby or babies. Preterm birth can lead to many different complications for your baby, including:
- Low birth weight
- Respiratory distress
- Neonatal infections or sepsis
- Neurological injury
- Vision problems
- Developmental delays
- Necrotizing enterocolitis
- Chronic lung disease
- Gastroesophageal reflux (GER)
- Patent ductus arteriosus
- Learning disabilities
- Behavioral problems
- Hearing impairment
Keep in mind that babies are more likely to develop complications the earlier they’re born. Every premature baby is different: some may not require a lengthy NICU stay and go on to have normal development, whereas others suffer from chronic complications.
If you have a premature baby, their medical team will be able to help you understand their needs and determine whether they need additional assistance after birth.
It’s not always possible to prevent early labor, but some strategies may help you maintain a healthy pregnancy. These include:
- Attend your prenatal check-ups as scheduled.
- Seek prenatal care early on in pregnancy.
- Eat a healthy diet before and during pregnancy.
- Ingest more foods that are associated with a lower risk of premature birth. These foods contain polyunsaturated fats or PUFAs, and they include nuts, fish, seeds, and seed oils.
- Avoid smoking, illicit drugs, or alcohol during pregnancy.
- Consider family planning to space your pregnancies apart. Pregnancies that are less than six months apart are more likely to result in preterm birth.
- Consider the risk associated with multiple pregnancies if you’re using assisted reproductive technology (ART) and are planning to implant multiple embryos.
- Take preventative medications if prescribed by your doctor. These medications can include progesterone and other drugs.
- Manage chronic health conditions before and during your pregnancy.
- Seek medical attention immediately if you suspect that you’re experiencing signs of preterm labor.
Preterm labor can lead to premature birth, which may cause complications for the baby. The consequences of preterm birth can be acute or lead to chronic health problems.
Although you can take proactive measures to maximize the chances of having a healthy, full-term pregnancy, preterm birth can’t always be avoided or stopped. In this event of preterm labor, your health care team will work with you to try to keep both you and your baby healthy and safe during this process.
It’s important to learn how to recognize preterm labor signs so that you can seek medical attention quickly if necessary. In many cases, immediate treatment can help slow down or stop preterm labor. Even if labor can’t be stopped, seeking assistance as soon as possible allows your medical team to monitor you and the baby closely during birth.