Premature Labor

Premature labor (preterm labor) is when symptoms of labor occur before 37 weeks of pregnancy. (This is 3 weeks before your due date.) Premature labor can lead to premature delivery. This means giving birth to your baby early. Babies need at least 37 weeks of pregnancy for all the organs to develop normally. The earlier the delivery, the greater the risks to the baby.

In most cases, the cause of premature labor is unknown. But certain factors may make the problem more likely. These include:

  • History of premature labor with other pregnancies

  • Smoking

  • Alcohol or substance abuse

  • Low prepregnancy weight or weight gain during pregnancy

  • Short time period between pregnancies

  • Being pregnant with twins, triplets, or more

  • History of certain types of surgery on the cervix or uterus

  • Having a short cervix

  • Certain infections

There are a number of other risk factors. Ask your healthcare provider to help you understand the risk factors specific to your case. Then find out what you can do to control or reduce them.

Contractions are one of the main signs of premature labor. A contraction is different from cramping. It may feel painful and the belly (abdomen) may get hard. It can last from a few seconds to a few minutes. Some women may feel only a sense of pressure in the belly, thighs, rectum, or vagina. Some may feel only the hardening of the uterus without pain or pressure. Or there may be a constant pain in the lower back, which spreads forward toward the belly. Premature labor is often treated with medicines. A hospital stay may be needed. If labor doesn't progress and you and your baby are both healthy, you may be discharged to continue care at home.

Home care

  • Ask your provider any questions you have. Be certain you understand how to care for yourself at home. Also follow all recommendations given by your healthcare providers.

  • Learn the signs of premature labor. Watch for these signs when you get home.

  • Limit or restrict activities as advised. This may include stopping certain physical activities and cutting back hours at work.

  • Don't do strenuous work as advised by your provider. Ask family and friends for help with tasks and support at home, if needed.

  • Don’t smoke, drink alcohol, or use other harmful substances.

  • Take steps to reduce stress.

  • Report any unusual symptoms to your provider.

Follow-up care

Follow up with your healthcare provider directed. Weekly visits with your provider may be needed.

When to seek medical advice

Call your healthcare provider right away if any of these occur:

  • Regular or frequent contractions, whether they're painful or not

  • Pressure in the pelvis

  • Pressure in the lower belly or mild cramping in your belly with or without diarrhea

  • Constant low, dull backache

  • Gush or slow leaking of water from your vagina

  • Change in vaginal discharge (watery, mucus, or bloody)

  • Any vaginal bleeding

  • Decreased movement of your baby

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