Premature labor (or pre-term labor) is when you start having contractions and true labor after your 20th week of pregnancy and more than 3 weeks before your due date. Contractions (tightening of the uterus’ muscles) cause the cervix (lower end of the uterus) to open earlier than normal.
Pre-term labor may result in the birth of a premature baby. However, labor often can be stopped to allow the baby more time to grow and develop in the uterus. Premature labor treatments include bed rest, fluids given intravenously (in your vein), and medications to relax the uterus.
If born prematurely after the seventh month, a baby would likely survive, but may need to stay in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). If the baby is born earlier than the seventh month, he or she may be able to survive with specialized care in the NICU.
Recognizing the signs and knowing what to do about them increase the chance that you can get help quickly to stop pre-term labor.
Signs and Symptoms of Premature Labor
Premature labor is usually not painful, but there are several warning signs and symptoms:
- Contractions in your uterus every 10 minutes or more often
- Tightening or low, dull backache that may be constant or come and go, but changing positions and other comfort measures don't ease it
- Menstrual-like cramps or lower abdominal cramping that may feel like gas pains, with or without diarrhea
- Increased pressure in your pelvis or vagina
- Increased vaginal discharge
- Leaking of fluid from the vagina
- Vaginal bleeding
- Flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting, or diarrhea
- Less movement or kicking by your baby
What to Do If You Have Signs of Premature Labor
Call your doctor right away if you have:
- Fluid leaking from the vagina
- Vaginal bleeding
- Sudden increase of vaginal discharge
Check for contractions if you have any of these signs of premature labor:
- Menstrual-like or abdominal cramps
- Low, dull backache
- Pelvic or vaginal pressure
To check for contractions, place your fingertips on your abdomen. If you can feel your uterus tightening and softening, you can then record how often the contractions are happening. To time your contractions, write down the time at the beginning of one contraction and again at the beginning of the next contraction.
If you have contractions every 10 minutes or more often that do not go away within an hour after changing your position, relaxing, or drinking two to three glasses of water, call your health care provider. Also, call your health care provider if the warning signs listed above worsen or if pain is severe and persistent.
If You Need to Go to the Hospital
After discussing your signs of premature labor, your doctor may tell you to go to the hospital. Once you arrive, a doctor or nurse will:
- Check your pulse, blood pressure, and temperature
- Put a monitor on your abdomen to check your baby's heart rate and your uterine contractions
- Check your cervix to see if it is opening
If you are in premature labor, you may need treatment, which may include:
- Intravenous (IV) fluids (given into your vein)
- Medicine to relax your uterus and stop labor
- Medicine to help speed up the development of your baby's lungs
- Bed rest
- Being admitted to the hospital
If you are in premature labor, you may receive medication to slow contractions. You are usually given a different medication to help speed up the development of your baby's lungs.
If the labor has progressed and cannot be stopped, you may need to deliver your baby.
If you are not in premature labor, you will be able to go home.