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Preterm Labor

What is preterm labor?

If you have regular, painful uterine contractions and changes in your cervix between your 20th and 37th weeks of pregnancy, you are having preterm labor, also called premature labor.
Preterm labor can lead to delivery of a premature baby. A premature baby faces many challenges and may require special treatment in an intensive care nursery; premature babies also can die at birth. Even with intensive treatment, the premature baby may die or may have chronic lung disease or other serious problems.

Preterm labor can sometimes be controlled with bed rest or medication and does not always result in premature delivery of the baby. Follow all of your healthcare provider's instructions carefully so that your baby can be born as healthy as possible.

What are the symptoms?

Preterm labor contractions may be subtler than and feel different from normal labor contractions. Many times, a preterm labor contraction is hard to distinguish from the normal aches and pains of pregnancy and the movements of the baby. It is important to know the signs and symptoms of preterm labor, how to feel the uterus for contractions, and when to call your healthcare provider about contractions.

Some of the signs and symptoms of preterm labor are:

  • An increase or change in vaginal discharge; for example, a slow, continuous leaking of fluid from the vagina
  • Any rhythmic pelvic pressure
  • Menstrual-like cramps that come and go
  • Abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea
  • Backache with a tightening of the abdomen

What should I do if I think I'm having preterm labor?

Contractions come and go, and you may have contractions a few times a day. Your body is just getting ready for labor as the baby presses into position. If you feel contractions more than three times in an hour, take these steps:

  • Drink two to three large glasses of water or juice (not coffee or soda).
  • Urinate. This may remove irritation to your uterus.
  • Stop what you're doing. Rest on your left side for 1 hour.
  • Place one hand on top of your uterus to feel for the tightening of contractions.

If the symptoms get worse or do not go away after 1 hour, call your healthcare provider again or go to the hospital. Call if you experience any of the following warning signs:

  • More than five or six contractions in one hour
  • Any leaking of fluid from the vagina
  • Any vaginal bleeding or spotting or vaginal discharge that is stained pink or brown with blood
  • Any pain or burning when you urinate

How does it occur?

We usually do not know what causes preterm labor. However, some women are more likely to have premature labor. Women who have had a previous preterm labor or delivery, previous abdominal surgery, or problems with the uterus or cervix are at higher risk. Kidney or bladder infections and sexually transmitted diseases, smoking, and use of drugs also increase risk.

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

  • Visit your healthcare provider as soon as you think you are pregnant.
  • Visit your healthcare provider according to the schedule you are given, and follow all of your provider's advice.
  • Discuss with your healthcare provider possible effects of your work schedule.
  • Rest as much as possible.
  • Don't skip meals. Eat healthy meals and snacks every day.
  • Learn how to recognize contractions by feeling your uterus with your hand on your abdomen.
  • Get treatment for any kidney, bladder, or vaginal infections.
  • Learn about other signs and symptoms of premature labor. Call your healthcare provider if you have any signs or symptoms of preterm labor or any unusual feelings.
  • Avoid stimulation of your nipples, which can cause contractions.
  • Avoid intercourse if orgasm or intercourse causes contractions.
  • Do not smoke cigarettes or use illegal drugs.

If you are being treated for preterm labor, carefully follow all of your healthcare provider's instructions. If you have questions, please call 312.996.4175 to speak with a nurse or midwife.