Premature Labor

What is premature labor? Sometimes called preterm labor, this is labor that begins more than 3 weeks before you expect to deliver your baby, but after the 20th week of pregnancy.

If you have premature labor, the muscles of your uterus start tightening (contracting) too soon. This causes the lower end of the uterus (cervix) to open earlier than normal.

Learn the signs and symptoms of premature labor. If you recognize them and know what to do, you can often get help to stop preterm labor. This prevents your baby from being born too early, so your baby has more time to grow and develop in the uterus.

Signs and Symptoms of Premature Labor

Premature labor pains can vary in severity from mild to painful, but there are several warning signs and symptoms. They include:

  • Contractions in the uterus every 10 minutes or more often
  • Regular tightening or low, dull pain in your back; this either comes or goes or is constant, but changing positions and other comfort measures don't relieve it.
  • Menstrual-like cramps or lower abdominal cramping that may feel like gas pains; you may have this cramping with or without diarrhea.
  • Increased pressure in the 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 the baby

What to Do If You Have Signs of Premature Labor

Call your doctor right away if you have:

  • Leaking of fluid from the vagina
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Sudden increase of vaginal discharge

Lie down -- on your left side if you can. Check for contractions if you have any of the following signs of premature labor:

  • Menstrual-like or abdominal cramps
  • Low, dull backache
  • Pelvic or vaginal pressure

To check for contractions:

  1. Place your fingertips on your abdomen.
  2. Check to see if you can feel your uterus tightening and softening.
  3. Write down the time at the beginning of one contraction and again at the beginning of the next contraction.

Call your doctor 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.
  • The warning signs listed above worsen.
  • 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:

  • You will put on a hospital gown.
  • A doctor or nurse will check your pulse, blood pressure, and temperature.
  • A monitor on your abdomen will check your baby's heart rate and your uterine contractions.
  • A doctor or nurse will check your cervix to see if it is opening.
  •  A swab test, called a fetal fibronectin test, may be done to determine your risk of delivering the baby soon, if the doctor feels this is appropriate.

If you are in premature labor, you may need treatment, which may include:

  • Intravenous fluids (given into your vein)
  • Medications to relax your uterus and stop labor
  • Medication to help speed up the development of your baby's lungs
  • Bed rest
  • Possible admission to the hospital

If the labor has progressed and the doctor cannot stop the labor, you may need to deliver your baby right away.

If you are not in premature labor, you will be able to go home.

WebMD Medical Reference Reviewed by Neha Pathak, MD on March 19, 2021



The March of Dimes: "Preterm labor and birth: A serious pregnancy complication."

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