Learn more about the symptoms of preterm labor and how to take action.

Preterm labor

Preterm labor happens when contractions cause the opening of the cervix between weeks 20-37 of a pregnancy and result in a premature birth. Health risks for mental and physical disabilities increase the earlier the birth occurs. Premature babies require special care from a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).

Prevention of preterm labor

There are several factors that increase the risk for preterm labor. They include:

  • Lack of good prenatal care
  • Personal or family history of preterm labor
  • Alcohol use during pregnancy
  • Smoking or drug use during pregnancy
  • Health conditions including infections, preeclampsia, diabetes, and blood clotting disorders
  • Traumatic life events
  • Pregnancies with twins or multiples
  • Pregnancies with a baby who has birth defects
  • Pregnancies with a baby conceived through in vitro fertilization (IVF)
  • Pregnancy that occurs less than six months prior to another pregnancy

The following actions may decrease the risk of preterm labor:

  • Having regular prenatal care and visits
  • Eating a healthy diet
  • Avoiding risky substances (smoking, drugs, alcohol)
  • Managing chronic conditions (like diabetes or high blood pressure)
  • Taking additional hormone shots, as suggested by your doctor

Symptoms of preterm labor

Understanding the warning signs of preterm labor is critical. Seeking immediate help can significantly influence the outcome. If you notice the following symptoms, have a doctor check them out as soon as possible:

  • Lower backache. This may be inconsistent pain and dull ache, but the pain will not subside regardless of the actions taken to improve comfort.
  • Contractions. Contractions occurring every 10 minutes or less are a sign that you might be going into labor.
  • Cramps. These are menstrual-like cramps in the lower abdomen. They can feel similar to gas pains that are associated with diarrhea.
  • Vaginal fluid or bleeding. Fluid leaking from the vagina or light vaginal bleeding.
  • Increase pressure. Additional pressure in the pelvis or vagina.
  • Flu-like symptoms. These include nausea, vomiting, and diarrhea. Intolerance of liquids for longer than 8 hours means you should see the doctor.

Going to the hospital for preterm labor

There are several things that will happen if the doctors determine you are going into preterm labor. The medical staff will do the following:

  • Ask for your medical history and a list of the medication(s) taken during pregnancy
  • Check your blood pressure, temperature, and pulse
  • Use a monitor to check your contractions and the baby’s heart rate
  • Swab for fetal fibronectin (helping predict the risk level for preterm labor)
  • See if the cervix is opening

If the doctor determines your labor will not stop, he/she may prepare to deliver the baby. In cases where the symptoms subside, you are able to return home.

Risks of preterm labor

Babies who are born premature 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 increases 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.

It is important to contact your doctor immediately if you think you might be in preterm labor. To learn more about the risks and outcomes associated with preterm labor, contact your neighborhood Texas Health Care Obstetrics & Gynecology clinic in DFW.