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Preterm Labor

As your pregnancy progresses, you and your family are getting excited—and possibly impatient— to finally meet your baby! However, each additional week in the womb helps your little one develop and prepare for the outside world.

Babies come whenever they’re ready, but if this starts to happens before 37 weeks, or what is considered full term, you may be going into preterm labor.

What causes preterm labor?

Though the reason is often unknown, some causes of preterm labor include:

  • Hormone changes
  • Infections
  • Stretching of the uterus due to multiple babies, large fetus or amniotic fluid issue
  • Vaginal bleeding

What are risk factors for preterm labor?

  • Abnormally-shaped uterus
  • Being African American
  • Being under 20 years or over 35 years of age
  • Birth defects
  • Having a preterm birth in the past
  • Illness, such as heart or kidney disease
  • Incompetent cervix, or cervix not being able to stay closed
  • Multiples
  • Placental problems
  • Problems with fetal growth
  • Smoking or drug use
  • Stress

What are signs of preterm labor?

Preterm labor is labor that happens before 37 weeks and can include:

  • Backache
  • Change in the type or amount of vaginal discharge
  • Contractions, especially more than four in an hour
  • Diarrhea
  • Gush of fluid from the vagina
  • Menstrual-like cramps
  • Pressure in the lower belly

If you have any symptoms of preterm labor or are unsure whether you are in labor, call your healthcare provider as soon as possible.

How is preterm labor treated?

Depending on what may be causing your preterm labor, your doctor or midwife may prescribe or recommend:

  • Antibiotics for infections
  • Bed rest at home or in the hospital
  • Cervical cerclage (stitching the cervix closed)
  • Corticosteroids to help mature your baby’s lungs
  • Delivery, if necessary
  • Tocolytic medicines, which help slow or stop contractions

What are complications of preterm labor?

Babies born before 37 weeks are considered premature and have an increased risk for complications, such as breathing problems, digestive problems and infections.

Learn more about prematurity.

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