Preterm or premature labor is labor that begins before 37 weeks in pregnancy. Signs of preterm labor are fluid leaking from your vagina, vaginal bleeding, contractions, back pain and pelvic pain. Contact your healthcare provider right away if you believe you’re in early labor.
Preterm or premature labor is labor that begins early — before 37 weeks of pregnancy. A normal pregnancy period (fetal development) is about 40 weeks. A pregnancy is “at term” at 37 weeks — anything before 37 weeks is called preterm. Labor is the process your body goes through to prepare for childbirth. Common signs of labor include contractions (tightening of the muscles in your uterus) and your water breaking (rupture of membranes). If you’re experiencing preterm labor, your cervix (lowest end of your uterus) may open (dilate) earlier than usual.
Preterm labor may result in premature birth (being born early). However, labor can often be stopped to allow the fetus more time to grow and develop in the uterus. Treatments to stop premature labor include bed rest, intravenous (in your vein) fluids and medicines to relax your uterus.
In some cases, labor’s induced before the fetus reaches term. This typically happens when there’s a medical reason for delivery. Examples could be preeclampsia (high blood pressure during pregnancy), placental abruption or the fetus isn’t growing (fetal growth restriction).
Premature birth (or preterm birth) is when a baby is born before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Babies born before 37 weeks can have health complications like trouble breathing or low birth weight.
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There isn’t one trigger for preterm labor. Several factors can play a role in your body going into labor too soon. Some of these factors are related to your medical history, previous pregnancies and lifestyle. Sometimes people with no known risk factors have preterm labor.
Sometimes, but it’s usually temporary. If you go into preterm labor, your healthcare provider may recommend certain medications to stop or delay labor. If those medications don’t work, other medications may help prepare the fetus for an early birth by maturing its lungs and organs.
It’s important to learn the signs of preterm labor. Call your healthcare provider right away if you have any of the following symptoms and if the symptoms don’t go away in one hour, or if the pain is severe and persistent:
You may be having Braxton Hicks contractions, a type of practice contraction that helps prepare you for the real thing. Real contractions get closer together, more painful and don’t stop if you rest or change positions. If you aren’t sure if what you feel is a real contraction, contact your healthcare provider to be sure.
Many factors can contribute to preterm labor. Some are within your control, while others aren’t.
The three risk factors that make you most likely to go into premature labor are:
Your healthcare provider diagnoses preterm labor by examining your cervix. If your cervix is effaced (thinned) and dilated (open), you may be in preterm labor. In addition to a pelvic exam, your provider may perform the following:
If you’re in premature labor, you might need medicine to slow or stop labor. If the labor has progressed and can’t be stopped, your provider may need to deliver the fetus early. There are also medications to help the fetus’s lungs and organs if they’re born early. Your provider will evaluate:
The goal of medication is to stop labor from progressing and give the fetus as much time as possible to grow. The following medications treat preterm labor:
If you have a history of preterm birth, your obstetrician may recommend medication to prevent you from going into labor too soon. The most commonly used medication is progesterone. It involves inserting a progesterone suppository into your vagina. In some cases, your provider will recommend a cervical cerclage. It’s a procedure in which your cervix is stitched closed to prevent it from dilating.
It’s hard to prevent going into labor early, but there are some ways to lower your risk for preterm labor. Some things you can do are:
Contact your healthcare provider immediately if you notice any of the following signs of preterm labor:
A note from Cleveland Clinic
Preterm (or premature) labor can lead to the fetus being born too early. Contact your provider right away if you notice signs of preterm labor like contractions, an increase in vaginal discharge, bleeding or pelvic pain. Luckily, there are things your healthcare provider can do to slow your labor. The longer the fetus stays in your uterus, the less likely it’ll have health complications. You may be at higher risk for preterm labor if you’re carrying twins or have a history of preterm labor or premature birth. Staying healthy throughout your pregnancy and managing existing health conditions is the best way to prevent premature labor.
Last reviewed by a Cleveland Clinic medical professional on 11/07/2022.
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