Preterm Labor

Risk factors and signs of premature labor

Preterm labor is medically defined as any labor which occurs prior to the 37th week of pregnancy. Women who experience premature labor should seek immediate medical attention, as it carries significant risks to the health of your unborn baby.

While there are environmental and lifestyle risks that can heighten your chances for premature labor, including alcohol consumption, smoking during pregnancy, chronic or severe stress, late prenatal care and exposure to certain medications, there are no clear-cut answers as to why it happens to some women and not to others. Also, if you have experienced preterm labor before, are pregnant with multiple babies, suffer from diabetes or high blood pressure, or if your uterus or cervix have structural problems, you are at heightened risk.


Signs of Premature Labor

Premature labor can occur when you are between 20 and 37 weeks pregnant. The symptoms of premature labor include:

  • Contractions
  • Pressure in your pelvis, which most women describe as a feeling that the baby is pushing downward
  • Cramps that feel like pre-menstrual cramps
  • Abdominal cramps (which may be accompanied by diarrhea)
  • Vaginal discharges or bleeding
  • Pain in your lower back

What to Do if You Have Signs of Preterm Labor

Do not pass the signs of premature labor off as "normal" or "nothing to worry about." It is very important that you seek immediate medical attention if you think you may be going into labor early.

If the symptoms do not seem severe, but are moderate, call your prenatal caregiver. He or she will advise you on whether to come into the office or go to the hospital. If the symptoms are sudden and seem severe, stop what you are doing and go straight to the emergency room. It is advisable for you to drink a few glasses of water or fruit juice to ensure you are well hydrated prior to treatment. Do not substitute coffee, tea or soft drinks for water or juice.

When you arrive for treatment, the emergency room doctors or your prenatal caregiver will perform a physical examination of your cervix to see if it is starting to open up. This is the only way to tell for sure whether your symptoms are being caused by preterm labor, or if they are due to another condition. If it is determined that you are experiencing preterm labor, your doctor will want to begin treatment immediately.

The earlier in your pregnancy you are, the more likely your doctor will try to delay your labor. You may be given IV antibiotics to reduce the risk of infection, medication to slow down the contractions and corticosteroids to speed up the development of your infant's lungs. Your medical team will have to weigh the risks of delivering a premature infant against the risks of continuing the pregnancy. If your water breaks, there is any sign of infection, complications such as preeclampsia or placental abruption, or the baby appears not to be thriving, they will likely want to induce labor or deliver the infant immediately by c-section.

Preventing Preterm Labor

There is no sure-fire way to prevent premature labor, but the most important step you can take is to maintain a healthy lifestyle during your pregnancy. See your doctor as soon as you know you are pregnant and go for regular prenatal visits so that any problems are caught early. Eat healthy foods and take a prenatal vitamin to ensure that you're getting all essential nutrients. Avoid alcohol, cigarettes and any supplements or medications that have not been approved by your doctor. See your dentist for a checkup and cleaning, and brush and floss regularly; poor oral health has been linked to preterm labor. Take care to manage any chronic conditions such as diabetes and high blood pressure, and avoid excessive stress.

If you have a history of preterm birth, your doctor may administer weekly progesterone injections for premature labor prevention. This treatment is approved only for women currently pregnant with a single baby who have previously experienced a preterm birth.