Preterm labor is when regular contractions of the uterus that cause changes in the cervix start before the 37th week of pregnancy. Preterm labor that can’t be stopped results in your baby being born early. Health risks for mental and physical disabilities increase the earlier birth occurs. Premature babies require special care from a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).
What are the symptoms of preterm labor?
Preterm labor symptoms can include fairly regular contractions, lower back pain, pelvic or abdominal pressure or cramping, vaginal spotting, water breaking (ruptured membranes), change in vaginal discharge or flu-like symptoms including nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Contact your obstetrician immediately if you have any of these symptoms.
How do you know it is preterm labor?
Your obstetrician may need to monitor you for contractions and do a pelvic exam to see if your cervix is dilating. Other tests that are sometimes done to evaluate for preterm labor include a transvaginal ultrasound to assess your cervical length or a special vaginal swab called fetal fibronectin that can help determine your risk for preterm delivery by looking at protein levels in the vagina.
Preventing preterm labor
There are several factors that increase the risk of preterm labor. A lack of good prenatal care, a personal or family history of preterm labor, alcohol use during pregnancy as well as smoking or drug use during pregnancy. Further, health conditions including infections, preeclampsia, diabetes, blood clotting disorders and traumatic life events can contribute to preterm labor. Pregnancies with twins, a baby who has a birth defect or a baby conceived via IVF (in vitro fertilization) are also at a higher risk.
Can preterm labor be stopped?
Sometimes preterm labor stops on its own. If it doesn’t and it is in the best interest of your health and the baby’s health to stop the labor, medications can be given that are sometimes successful in stopping labor. You may also receive steroids and magnesium sulfate to protect the lungs and brain of your baby in the case that it is born early. Only about ten percent of women who present with preterm labor will give birth within a week of going into preterm labor.
What if labor can’t be stopped?
If labor can’t be stopped you will have your baby early and your baby will receive special care depending on how early the baby is and what, if any, care is needed. Some babies will require care in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Babies born before 32 weeks of pregnancy are at the greatest risk.
Risks of preterm labor
Babies who are born prematurely typically progress and catch up to those babies who were full-term. However, premature babies run a higher risk of certain problems as their growth rate is much slower. The likelihood and severity of problems increase the earlier a baby is born. If the birth occurs after 7 months, the NICU stay is usually brief. A birth prior to 7 months requires specialized, longer-term NICU care. Examples of these potential health problems range from physical to mental disorders, including cerebral palsy, lung problems, vision loss, hearing loss, autism, and intellectual disabilities. The obstetricians at Texas Health Care Obstetrics & Gynecology have specialized training and experience in caring for women who may go into preterm labor.