Preterm Labor

What is preterm labor?

Preterm labor is having regular, painful contractions and changes in your cervix between your 20th and 37th weeks of pregnancy. It is also called premature labor.

Preterm labor can lead to an early delivery of your baby. A baby that is born early may have serious, life-threatening problems because there was not time to fully develop. A premature baby may need special treatment in a newborn intensive care unit.

What is the cause?

Preterm labor seldom has a clear cause. Your risk of preterm labor may be higher if:

  • You have problems during your pregnancy, such as high blood pressure or too much or too little fluid in the sac that surrounds the baby.
  • You have a sexually transmitted disease or infection (STD or STI) during the pregnancy.
  • You had preterm labor or or a premature baby in the past.
  • You are pregnant with more than 1 baby.
  • You have an abnormally shaped uterus or fibroids in your uterus.
  • You are less than 18 years old or over 35 years old.
  • You smoke or use drugs or alcohol during your pregnancy.
  • You were underweight before getting pregnant.

What are the symptoms?

Symptoms may include:

  • An increase or change in vaginal discharge, such as a slow, constant leaking of fluid from your vagina
  • Feelings of pressure in your pelvis, like your baby is pushing down
  • Cramps in your belly that come and go (contractions)
  • Backache

Ask your provider about the signs and symptoms of preterm labor, how to feel the uterus for contractions, and when to call your provider about contractions.

How is it diagnosed?

Your healthcare provider will ask about your symptoms and medical history and examine you. Tests may include:

  • A pelvic exam to see how much your cervix has thinned or opened
  • Tests of blood, urine, or cells from your cervix
  • Use of a monitor to measure uterine contractions.
  • An ultrasound scan to check the placenta, check the baby’s, position of the baby, and measure the cervix and the amount of fluid in the amniotic sac.
  • A test of fluid from your vagina to check for a protein that may mean you are at risk for preterm labor

How is it treated?

Your healthcare provider may or may not try to stop your labor and the early delivery of your baby. The decision is based on:

  • How long you have been pregnant
  • Your health
  • The baby’s health
  • If you are near a hospital with a newborn intensive care unit
  • Changes in your cervix
  • Whether or not your bag of water has broken

The longer the pregnancy continues, the better the chances are that your baby will live and be healthy.

Treatment for stopping preterm labor may include:

  • Bed rest at home or in the hospital
  • Medicine to stop the contractions
  • Treatment for infections you may have

Your healthcare provider will probably not use medicine to stop early labor if:

  • You have a lot of vaginal bleeding.
  • You have very high blood pressure.
  • You have an infection in your uterus.
  • Your cervix is too open.
  • You have a baby with fatal birth defects or who has died already.
  • There are problems with the placenta.
  • You have any condition in which the pregnancy should not go on.

If your baby needs to be delivered early, you may be given medicine to help your baby’s lungs develop more fully so that your baby can breathe better after birth. You may need to go to a hospital with a newborn intensive care unit.

How can I take care of myself and help prevent preterm labor?

If you are being treated for preterm labor, carefully follow all of your healthcare provider’s instructions.

Regular prenatal visits may help your healthcare provider detect problems ahead of time. If you have had premature labor before and are pregnant again, be sure to tell your healthcare provider about it. Ask your provider about ways you can help lower the risk of problems.

If you have a risk for preterm labor:

  • Visit your healthcare provider as soon as you think you are pregnant and follow all of your provider’s advice.
  • Avoid stimulation of your nipples, which can cause contractions.
  • Avoid having sex if it causes contractions.
  • Learn how to know when you are having contractions by feeling your uterus with your hand on your belly.
  • Get treatment for any kidney, bladder, or vaginal infections.

A healthy lifestyle may also help:

  • Eat a healthy diet. Include foods that are high in iron, such as meat, beans, and fortified breakfast cereals. Also include foods high in folic acid, such as dark green leafy vegetables, citrus fruits, beans, and peas.
  • Try to keep a healthy weight during your pregnancy. Ask your healthcare provider how much you should expect to gain.
  • Stay fit with the right kind of exercise for you.
  • Limit caffeine. Too much caffeine may make it more likely that you will have a low-birth-weight baby or stillbirth. There are some reports that drinking a lot of caffeine may increase the risk of miscarriages. Talk to your healthcare provider about this.
  • Do not drink any alcohol while you are pregnant as it is not safe for your baby.
  • If you smoke, try to quit. If you stop smoking early in your pregnancy, your risks are about the same as someone who does not smoke. Ask for support from your family, friends, or healthcare provider to help stop smoking during your pregnancy.
  • Try to get at least 7 to 9 hours of sleep each night.

Contact your healthcare provider if you have new or unusual symptoms.

Developed by RelayHealth.
Adult Advisor 2015.1 published by RelayHealth.
Last modified: 2014-09-17
Last reviewed: 2014-09-17
This content is reviewed periodically and is subject to change as new health information becomes available. The information is intended to inform and educate and is not a replacement for medical evaluation, advice, diagnosis or treatment by a healthcare professional.
Copyright ©1986-2015 McKesson Corporation and/or one of its subsidiaries. All rights reserved.

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