Treatment 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 and medications that can help to stop preterm labor if they are given early enough.  To try to stop preterm labor, you may be treated with a tocolytic such as magnesium sulfate.  A Tocolytic will slows contractions of the uterus.  By delaying preterm labor, doctors can use other medications to help speed up the baby’s lung development and improve the baby’s chance of survival. The extra time could also allow mothers to be transferred to a more specialized hospital, if needed.  Magnesium treatment can tire mothers-to-be and make them feel somewhat disoriented. Other side effects include a very dry mouth, congestion, and sensitivity to light.

The most important and successful medications to treat preterm labor patients are glucocorticoid steroids (such as Betametasane and Decadron). These are given over a 24-hour time period by injection, and they increase the maturity and function of immature fetal lungs. These steroids have been proven to reduce premature neonate problems of respiratory diseases, ventilator use, and brain hemorrhage.

Treatment of Preterm Labor