Signs and Symptoms of Preterm Labor

Labor that occurs before the 37th week of pregnancy is referred to as "preterm labor."  A "normal" pregnancy should last about 40 weeks.  Approximately 12% of births in the U.S. are preterm.  Preterm babies are at higher risk of needing hospitalization, having neurological, breathing, digestive or other long-term health problems and of dying than babies born after the 37th week.  They are also at risk of delayed development and learning disabilities. 

Symptoms of preterm labor may include:

–  Contractions every 10 minutes or more often

–  Change in vaginal discharge

–  Pelvic pressure—the feeling that your baby is pushing down

–  Low, dull backache

–  Cramps that feel like menstrual cramps

–  Abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea

Call your physician right away if you think you are having preterm labor.  When you call your physician, be sure to tell the person on the phone that you are concerned about the possibility of preterm labor.  Your physician may tell you to come to the office or go to the hospital for evaluation, stop what you are doing and rest on your left side for one hour, or drink 2–3 glasses of water or juice.  If the symptoms get worse, or don’t go away after one hour, call your physician again or go to the hospital. If the symptoms go away, take it easy for the rest of the day. If the symptoms stop but come back, call your physician again or go to the hospital.

There are treatments that can help to stop preterm labor if they are given early enough.  There are other medications that can be given 24 hours before birth to accelerate the baby’s lung and brain maturity, reducing some of the long-term risks.  It is important that you receive quick and capable medical care if you are experiencing preterm labor.

The causes of preterm labor are not readily identifiable, but there are certain risk factors that may cause spontaneous preterm birth, including:

–  Previous preterm delivery

–  Preterm premature rupture of the membranes

–  Pregnant with twins, triplets or more

–  Maternal history of one or more spontaneous second-trimester miscarriages

–  Smoking

–  Illicit drug use

–  Alcohol use

–  Lack of prenatal care

–  Stress

–  Long periods of standing

–  Domestic violence

–  Myomata

–  Uterine septum

–  Bicornuate uterus

–  Cervical incompetence

–  Exposure to diethylstilbestrol (DES)

–  Certain infections

–  Intrauterine fetal death

–  Intrauterine growth retardation

–  Abnormal placenta

–  Presence of a retained IUD

–  Clotting disorders

–  Obesity

–  Being underweight before pregnancy

–  Short time between pregnancy (less than 6-9 months between birth and beginning of next pregnancy)

–  Diabetes

Researchers also have identified other risk factors. For instance, African-American women, women younger than 17 or older than 35, and poor women are at greater risk than other women.  Experts do not fully understand why and how these factors increase the risk that a woman will have preterm labor or birth.  Each of these factors caries a varying amount of risk.  You should speak with your physician if you believe you may be at risk for preterm labor.

Signs and Symptoms of Preterm Labor