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Facts About Preterm Labor

Preterm labor (also called premature labor) occurs when a pregnant woman’s body starts to prepare for birth too early during her pregnancy by having regular contractions of the uterus that cause cervical changes before 37 weeks of pregnancy.

Preterm labor can lead to premature birth. A birth that occurs between 20 and 37 weeks of pregnancy is called a premature or preterm birth. Most babies are born near the end of the 40th week of pregnancy.

Worldwide, premature birth is the leading cause of death in children under the age of 5. Although advancements in neonatal care have improved survival rates, premature babies are at increased risk for developmental problems as they get older, including cerebral palsy, vision and hearing impairment, and developmental delays.

Premature birth rates have been rising in the United States, where today almost 10 percent of births occur prematurely. Fortunately, a pregnant woman who works with her healthcare professional can help decrease her risk of preterm labor. And, when preterm labor is diagnosed, healthcare professionals can take steps to help manage it and delay delivery.

Why Are Some Babies Born Too Early?

No one knows exactly what causes most cases of preterm labor. Several factors may increase a pregnant woman’s chances of having a premature baby.

Who Is More Likely to Deliver Too Early?

Preterm labor can happen to any pregnant woman at any time. Women at highest risk include:

  • Women expecting twins, triplets, or more

  • Women who have already had a premature baby

  • Women with abnormalities in the cervix or uterus
Other factors that may increase the risk of premature delivery:

  • Untreated infections, including urinary tract infections, vaginal infections, and sexually transmitted diseases

  • Diabetes

  • High blood pressure

  • Too short a time frame between pregnancies: It is generally recommended to wait at least 18 months before getting pregnant after a previous pregnancy.

  • Birth defects in the baby

  • Bleeding from the vagina

  • Lifestyle factors such as smoking, substance abuse, and stress

  • Age: Mothers under 17 or over 35 are at higher risk.

  • Race/Ethnicity: Black women are at higher risk than women of other races and ethnicities.

  • Weight before pregnancy: Weighing too little or too much increases the risk.

What Can I Do?

Although preterm labor cannot always be prevented, you can take steps to reduce your risk.

Take good care of yourself

  • Get good prenatal care. Keep all your appointments with your healthcare professional, even if you feel fine.

  • Avoid tobacco, alcohol, and illegal drugs, which can all harm your baby and lead to premature birth.

  • Talk to your healthcare professional before taking any kind of medicine, including prescriptions, over-the-counter medications, and herbal products.

Our Prenatal Care Box Display is a great teaching tool to
spark discussion about substances to avoid during pregnancy.

  • Relax, and try to reduce stress. Ask for help from family and friends.

  • Seek help for abuse. Physical, sexual, or emotional abuse may increase the risk of having a baby too early.
Know the signs of preterm labor

  • Contractions every 10 minutes or more often. They don’t have to be painful.

  • Fluid leaking from your vagina. You may also notice changes in vaginal discharge.

  • Pelvic pressure, or the feeling that your baby is pushing down.

Our Signs of Preterm Labor Tear Pad provides valuable
take-home information on preterm labor warning signs.

  • Low back pain, especially if you didn’t previously have back pain.

  • Cramps that feel like your period. These may come and go.

  • Abdominal cramps. These may be accompanied by diarrhea.

  • Burning or pain when you urinate. This is not a sign of preterm labor, but it could mean you have an infection that could lead to preterm labor.

These signs are not just the normal discomforts of pregnancy. If you experience even one of them, contact your healthcare professional immediately. Your healthcare professional may prescribe medication or bed rest to help slow or stop preterm labor.

Learn More

If you have questions about preterm labor, talk to your healthcare professional. Contact your healthcare professional right away if you have any concerns about preterm labor during your pregnancy.

To learn more about our childbirth education resources that teach about proper prenatal care and factors that can increase the risk for preterm labor, please visit our Pregnancy and Pregnancy Hazards product sections.

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