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When labor starts early

Preterm labor can sometimes be prevented or stopped. But babies born early can get special care to help them survive.

Sometimes your labor—and the arrival of your baby—happens sooner than you expected. When you go into labor before your 37th week of pregnancy, it is considered preterm labor. About 12% of babies born in the United States are born preterm, says the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG).

Most pregnancies last 37 to 42 weeks. The last weeks of pregnancy, through the 39th or 40th week, give your baby a chance to grow and mature in important ways. An early birth can sometimes result in health problems for a baby.

But if preterm labor is detected early enough, delivery may be postponed. Delaying birth by even a few days can give the baby a little more time to develop.

Causes of preterm delivery

Most of the time, it's not known why labor starts too early. But you have a higher risk of early labor and birth if you:

  • Have had a previous preterm birth.
  • Are pregnant with twins, triplets or more.
  • Have certain abnormal uterine or cervical features.
  • Have had little or no prenatal care.
  • Have an infection while pregnant.
  • Smoke cigarettes or use illegal drugs while pregnant.
  • Are under stress or lack social support.
  • Don't weigh enough.
  • Have too much amniotic fluid in the sac surrounding the baby.

If you're at risk for preterm labor, you may need to take preventive steps. It may help if you are less active. You should also watch for signs of preterm labor and visit your doctor more often.

When labor starts early

The symptoms of preterm labor are similar to those of full-term labor. You should call your doctor right away if you have:

  • A change in type of vaginal discharge (watery, mucous or bloody).
  • An increase in vaginal discharge.
  • Pressure in the pelvis or lower abdomen.
  • Constant, low, dull backache.
  • Mild abdominal cramps, with or without diarrhea.
  • A gush or a trickle of fluid that may signal your water is breaking.

You should also call your doctor if you feel contractions that are regular or frequent or if you feel uterine tightening. Take note, even if these are painless. And keep track of:

  • When each contraction starts.
  • How long they last.
  • The total you have in an hour.

Call right away if contractions are coming every 10 minutes or more often.

If contractions aren't regular or if they go away when you rest, they are probably false labor. These are also called Braxton Hicks contractions.

Your doctor can do tests to find out if you are in labor or if you are at risk for preterm delivery.

Treating preterm labor

Your doctor may try to stop preterm labor. This may be an option if the problem is found early enough. It may not be an option if you or your baby is at risk of infection, bleeding or other problems.

You may be given medications called tocolytics to stop contractions. If those medicines work, further steps may help keep labor from starting again. You may need bed rest and medications that relax the muscles in the uterus.

If a baby is going to be born preterm, you may be given another medicine called a corticosteroid. This medicine helps the lungs mature quickly so the baby can breathe after birth.

Preterm babies

Many preterm babies are tiny and fragile. But even babies born very early have a good chance of survival, reminds ACOG.

Preterm babies usually need special medical care. Treatments can help a baby:

  • Breathe.
  • Eat.
  • Stay warm.
  • Deal with other health problems that arise.

The type of care babies need depends on how early they are born.

Preterm babies may be cared for in a neonatal intensive care unit. They may need care for weeks or even months by specially trained doctors and nurses.

According to the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, babies born preterm can have health problems, such as:

  • Low birth weight.
  • A slower rate of growth than babies born at term.
  • Breathing problems, because of underdeveloped lungs.
  • Greater risk for infections.
  • Greater risk of learning and developmental disabilities.

Doctors have made great advances in caring for babies born too small and too soon. Many preterm babies grow up healthy, says the March of Dimes.

A full and healthy pregnancy

The exact cause of preterm labor isn't known. But treating yourself and your baby to a healthy lifestyle throughout your pregnancy may help prevent it, reminds ACOG. Try to:

  • Get regular prenatal care.
  • Eat healthy foods and not skip meals.
  • Be alert to signs of preterm labor.
  • Follow your doctor's advice.

Reviewed 12/18/2022

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