Pregnancy Complications


Pregnancy Stages / Development


What You Need to Know About Preterm Labor

What You Need to Know About Preterm Labor

A term pregnancy is defined as one in which birth occurs between 37 weeks and 42 weeks of pregnancy. In contrast, if the birth occurs before the end of the 37th week of pregnancy, it is considered preterm birth. Babies born prematurely often have low birth weight, weighing less than 5 1/2 pounds (2,500 grams) at birth. Their low weight, along with various other problems related to early birth, increases the risk of numerous health problems for these infants. Recognizing the signs and causes of preterm labor is crucial in order to address these concerns effectively. Keep reading to learn more about this topic.

Key Points

  • Preterm labor occurs before the completion of 37 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Babies who are born prematurely often have low birth weight, putting them at risk for various health problems.
  • Certain factors can increase the risk of preterm labor including previous preterm birth, previous miscarriages or abortions, multiple pregnancies, or other related experiences.
  • Signs of early labor include contractions of the uterus, lower back pain, heaviness in the lower pelvis and upper thighs, changes in vaginal discharge, and passing of the mucus plug.

What Causes Preterm Labor?

While the exact causes of preterm labor are unknown, it can often occur without identifiable risk factors. Still, certain factors have been identified that may increase a woman's risk of early labor.

Factors that increase the risk of preterm labor include:

  • Previous preterm birth
  • Pregnancy with twins, triplets, or more
  • More than one previous miscarriage or abortion
  • Infection of the fetal membranes or the amniotic fluid
  • Hydramnios (excess of amniotic fluid)
  • Problems with the placenta
  • Serious illness in the mother

What Are The Signs of Early Labor?

The signs that labor is beginning too early in pregnancy may be subtle or severe. Preterm labor is usually, but not always, signaled by contractions of the uterus. If you notice more than five contractions in an hour, it is time to contact your doctor or your hospital. Contractions at first may consist of a tightening feeling in your abdomen, which you may be able to feel with your fingertips.

Other signs of early labor may include:

  • Uterine contractions accompanied by lower back pain and a feeling of heaviness in the lower pelvis and upper thighs.
  • Changes in vaginal discharge, such as light spotting or bleeding along with the contractions. You may also notice a watery fluid leaking from your vagina, which may be amniotic fluid, a sign that the membranes surrounding the fetus have ruptured. If you pass the mucus plug — the mucus that accumulates in the cervix during pregnancy — you may notice this as a thick discharge tinged with blood.

For some women, these changes may occur without any sensation of uterine contractions. If you have doubts about what you're feeling — and especially if you have vaginal bleeding along with abdominal cramps or pain — call your doctor. Don't be embarrassed about mistaking false labor for the real thing.

How is Preterm Labor Diagnosed?

If your doctor suspects that you may be having early labor, you will need to be examined. Two of the first questions to be answered will be whether your cervix has begun to dilate and whether the fetal membranes have broken. A cervical examination will be necessary to answer these questions. A special monitor may be used to measure the length and spacing of your contractions.

With this information, your doctor will determine whether you are actually in labor.

What's the Treatment for Early Labor?

When preterm labor is diagnosed, a decision must be made as to whether to try stopping labor or allow it to continue. Both your baby's and your own well-being must be weighed against the benefits and risks of delivery versus stopping labor.

The content of this article should not be considered professional medical advice. Exercise due diligence when seeking relevant health information. Always consult your healthcare provider before making any medical decisions.

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