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Ashley S. Roman, MD

Preterm Labor: Signs, Risks And Prevention

Are you worried about giving birth early? Get all the info you need to know about the signs of preterm labor and how to avoid it.

What is preterm labor?

Preterm labor is when you go into labor before the 37th week of pregnancy, when baby may not be fully developed.

What are the signs of preterm labor?

If you think you're in preterm labor, some of the signs to look out for include vaginal discharge, leaking of amniotic fluid, vaginal bleeding or spotting and pressure in the pelvis (or feeling like baby is suddenly pushing down), as well as tightening, contractions or  abdominal pain that’s occurring regularly. Other symptoms include a low, dull  backache and diarrhea.

If something doesn’t feel right (regardless of whether you can pinpoint it), you may want to contact your doctor just to be on the safe side. Another thing: Make sure you’re not confusing preterm labor with Braxton Hicks contractions, which occur irregularly and infrequently during your pregnancy and are your body’s way of preparing for labor.

Are there any tests for preterm labor?

Your doctor can tell if you’re having preterm labor by observing changes in your cervix and monitoring your contractions. Some tests your doctor may use are a uterine monitor (to measure contractions), a fetal heart rate monitor (to record baby’s heartbeat), an ultrasound (to measure the length of your cervix) and a check for fetal fibronectin (a substance that binds the fetal sac and the uterus lining—your doctor will test swabs of your vaginal discharge).

How common is preterm labor?

According to the March of Dimes, preterm birth occurs in 12 percent of all pregnancies.

How did I get preterm labor?

Common risk factors for preterm labor include a previous preterm labor; pregnancy with multiples; problems with the uterus, cervix or placenta; smoking cigarettes and drinking alcohol; amniotic fluid infections or lower genital tract infections; high blood pressure; diabetes; being underweight or overweight before pregnancy;  gaining too little or  too much weight during pregnancy; stress; multiple miscarriages; and anemia. It’s important to note that even if you don’t have those risk factors, you may still go through preterm labor.

How will preterm labor affect my baby?

Baby may be born too soon. If baby is born premature, he may have a low birth weight, difficulty breathing, underdeveloped organs and infections. Premature babies may also be at a higher risk of having learning disorders and developmental and behavioral problems.

What’s the best way to treat preterm labor?

If your doctor finds you’re having preterm labor, he might order you on bed rest. Lying down on your left side to help circulation to your uterus may stop labor. If you’re admitted to the hospital, your doctor may also give you medication to stop the contractions.

What can I do to prevent preterm labor?

The most important thing is to make sure you’re having the healthiest pregnancy possible—that means getting regular prenatal care, eating a healthy diet, managing conditions like diabetes and high blood pressure, avoiding smoking and drinking, managing your stress, taking care of your teeth and asking your doctor about restricting sexual activity if you’re at a higher risk for preterm labor.

What do other pregnant moms do when they have polyhydramnios?

“I went in at my 28-week appointment and told them I felt a lot of pressure down there. I wasn’t sure if it was normal or not. They gave me an internal and then an ultrasound because my cervix was really short. I had a nonstress test, and it showed I was having contractions even though I couldn’t feel them. I was put on bed rest and made it to 36 weeks, when they induced me owing to intrauterine growth restriction.”

“I’ve been on bed rest the past two weeks because I went into preterm labor two weeks ago with my little guy. I felt a lot of pressure, and my contractions ended up being a minute apart. I had different discharge, and I just knew something was wrong. I could feel it.”

“With my last pregnancy, I went into labor at 28 weeks. I spent days in the hospital and was put on moderate bed rest for the remainder of the pregnancy. They were able to control the labor until 37 weeks, but I still had contractions just about daily. At 37 weeks, I was induced.”

Are there any other resources for preterm labor?

The American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists

Plus more from The Bump:

What to Expect During a Nonstress Test 

The Symptoms of Preterm Labor 

How to Avoid Preterm Labor