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What is Preterm Labor? Causes & Treatments

Table of Contents

Table of Contents

What is preterm labor?

When the uterus regularly tightens, the cervix starts to become thin and opens leading to the baby entering the birth canal, and the pregnant woman is then considered to be in labor. Whereas, during preterm labor, the labor starts before the 37 completed weeks of pregnancy.

What causes preterm labor?

In most women, the cause is unknown. However, some of the known causes of preterm labor are:

  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Hormone changes
  • Infections
  • Uterus being stretched ( reasons could be having more than 1 baby, a large baby, or too much amniotic fluid).

Who can be considered as at risk for preterm labor?

Although most women who experience preterm labor have no known risk factors. However, some things do raise a woman’s risk for preterm labor which includes:

  • Smoking
  • Stress
  • If you are under 20 years or over 35 years old
  • Being African American
  • Having a preterm birth in the past
  • Using illegal drugs such as cocaine
  • Abnormally shaped uterus
  • The placenta that separates from the uterus early
  • Cervix not able to stay closed
  • The placenta is in an abnormal position
  • Long-term illness such as kidney disease or heart disease
  • The placenta that does not work as well as it should
  • Early breaking of the sac around the baby (having premature rupture of membranes)
  • Birth defects in the baby
  • Problems with fetal growth
  • Having more than 1 baby in the womb

What are the symptoms of preterm labor?

Some of the most common symptoms of preterm labor are as follows:

  • Backache
  • Diarrhea
  • A gush of fluid from the vagina
  • Menstrual-type cramps
  • Pressure in the lower belly
  • Contractions happening more than 4 every 1 hour
  • Change in the type or amount of vaginal discharge (blood, mucus, or watery fluid)

If you experience any of the above-mentioned symptoms of preterm labor, call your healthcare provider as soon as possible. These symptoms may look like other health conditions, but it is always best to see your healthcare provider for a diagnosis.

How is preterm labor diagnosed?

If your healthcare provider thinks you are having preterm labor, you will most likely be asked to check into the hospital. With the help of an electronic monitor, they will check how often contractions are happening and how long do they last. This monitor comes with a small device called a transducer that is placed over your belly with a belt. The transducer then detects and sends information about the contractions to the monitor. You can monitor your baby’s heart rate too.

There are some other ways of checking for preterm labor which may include:

1) Cervical exam -

Your doctor will check your cervix for any changes.

2) Transvaginal ultrasound exam -

This ultrasound exam will use a transducer placed inside the vagina. It helps your doctor measure the length of your cervix.

3) Testing for amniotic fluid -

This test will let your doctor know if the sac around the baby has been broken.

4) Testing for fetal fibronectin (FFN) -

FFN is a protein that can be found between the amniotic membrane and the uterine lining. You just need a swab of cervical or vaginal fluid for FFN.

How can preterm labor be treated?

Treatment for preterm labor includes the following:

1) Bed rest -

This can be done either in the hospital or at home.

2) Tocolytic medicines -

These medicines will help slow or stop the contractions. It can be given either as a shot (injection) or into the vein (intravenously).

3) Corticosteroids -

As preterm babies’ lungs may not be able to work on their own, these will help the lungs of your baby grow and mature.

4) Cervical cerclage -

The cervix is stitched closed with the help of this procedure. It can be done when the cervix is weak and is not able to stay closed.

5) Antibiotics -

They are important to treat an infection.

5) Delivery of the baby -

Your healthcare provider will perform a cesarean delivery if the treatments do not stop preterm labor or if you or your baby is in danger.

What are the possible complications of preterm labor?

Preterm labor could result in preterm birth. As most babies are born after 37 weeks of pregnancy, those born preterm are at an increased risk of having many complications.

Premature babies are born before their body and organ systems have become fully matured. These babies are usually small and also have a low birth weight because they weigh less than 2,500 grams or 5.5 pounds. They will need help for breathing, eating, fighting infection, and staying warm. Babies born who are born before 28 weeks are at the greatest risk for problems.

Premature babies may have the following:

  • Infections
  • Breathing problems
  • Kidney problems
  • Trouble maintaining body temperature
  • Digestive problems, including trouble feeding and poor digestion
  • Nervous system problems such as seizures or bleeding in the brain
  • Heart and blood vessels problems which include heart defects, blood, and heart rate problems
  • Blood problems include low blood sugar (hypoglycemia), low red blood cell counts (anemia), or yellow color to the skin from breaking down old red blood cells (jaundice).

Premature babies can also suffer because of long-term health problems. Usually, the more premature the baby, the more serious and long-lasting will be the health problems.

What can I do to prevent preterm labor?

The good news is that more babies are surviving even though they are born early and are very small. However, it is best to prevent preterm labor if at all possible.

Prenatal care is very important to find problems and lifestyle factors that can increase the risks of preterm labor and birth. Here are some of the ways to help prevent preterm labor:

  • Try to find out if you are at risk for preterm labor.
  • Try to learn the symptoms of preterm labor.
  • Also, if you smoke, make sure that you stop smoking before you become pregnant.

Your doctor may give you the hormone progesterone if you are at high risk for preterm birth. This helps in reducing the risk for preterm birth if you have had a preterm birth in the past.

When to call your healthcare provider?

During your regular prenatal visits, you and your doctor will be talking about the symptoms of preterm labor and normal labor. However, if you experience any symptoms of preterm labor, such as contractions, cramps, back pain, or fluid leaking from your vagina, contact your doctor right away!

Here are some key points you need to keep in mind about preterm labor:

  • Preterm labor is labor that starts before the usual 37 weeks of pregnancy.
  • Preterm labor symptoms include contractions, cramps, back pain, or leaking of fluid from the vagina.
  • It could result in preterm birth. Any baby that is born too early is at risk for many serious health problems.
  • If you experience any symptoms, call your doctor as soon as possible.

What is the next step?

Here are some tips to help you get the most from a visit to your healthcare provider:

  • Know why you are visiting and what you want to happen.
  • Write down the questions you want to be answered, before your visit.
  • It is better to bring someone with you to help you ask questions and remember what your provider tells you.
  • During the visit, remember to write down the name of a new diagnosis, any new medicines, treatments, or tests. Also, make sure to write down any new instructions given by your provider.
  • Ask and know why a new medicine or treatment is being prescribed, how it will help you, and what the side effects are.
  • Ask if your condition could be treated in any other way possible.
  • Also, know why a test or procedure is being recommended and what the results could mean.
  • Ask and know what to expect if you do not take the medicine or have the test or procedure done.
  • If you are being asked to have a follow-up appointment, write down the date, time, and purpose for that visit.
  • If you have any questions, know how you can contact your provider.


For a woman, pregnancy is normally a time for happiness and anticipation, but it can also be a time for uncertainty. A lot of women have been filled with concerns about what is happening with their baby and often wonder if everything is okay. Some women are also concerned about going into labor early. Of all pregnancy premature labor occurs in about 12% of them. Nevertheless, a woman can reduce her chance of going into labor prematurely by knowing the symptoms and avoiding particular risk factors.

FAQs: What is Preterm Labor? Causes & Treatments

1) Can preterm labor be stopped?

Your healthcare provider may try to stop or delay preterm labor by administering a medicine called terbutaline. It helps prevent and slow contractions of the uterus and can also help delay birth for several hours or days.

2) What week is OK to give birth?

So, a premature baby is usually delivered before 37 weeks of your pregnancy. However, extremely preterm infants could be born 23 through 28 weeks and moderately preterm infants could be born between 29 and 33 weeks. Infants born between 34 and 37 weeks are late preterm.

3)Do babies born at 34 weeks need NICU?

Most premature babies at 33 and 34 weeks will have somewhat short NICU stays with only a few complications. These babies might need help breathing for a short time, however, learning to eat might take the longest.

On behalf of the editorial team at Parenthoodbliss, we follow strict reporting guidelines and only use credible sources, along with peer-reviewed studies, academic research institutions, and highly respected health organizations. To learn about how we maintain content accurate and up-to-date by reading our medical review and editorial policy.

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