Premature Labor

Your Guide to a Healthy Pregnancy

What is premature labor?

Premature or pre-term labor is labor that begins more than three weeks before you are expected to delivery.  Contractions (tightening of the muscles in the uterus) cause the cervix (lower end of the uterus) to open earlier than normal.

Pre-term labor might 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.  Treatments to stop premature labor include bedrest, fluids given intravenously (in your vein), and medicines to relax the uterus.

If born prematurely, a baby would be likely to survive after the seventh month, but might need to stay for a short time in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU).  If the baby is born earlier than seven months, he or she might be able to survive with specialized care in the NICU.

What are the signs of premature labor?

It is important for you to learn the signs of premature labor so you can get help to stop it and prevent your baby from being born too early.  Premature labor is usually not painful, but there are several warning signs, including:

  • Four or more contractions or tightening of the muscles in the uterus in one hour.
  • Regular tightening or low, dull pain in your back that either comes or goes or is constant (but is not relieved by changing positions or other comfort measures).
  • Lower abdominal cramping that might feel like gas pain (with or without diarrhea).
  • Increased pressure in the pelvis or vagina.
  • Menstrual-like cramps
  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Vaginal bleeding
  • Flu-like symptoms such as nausea, vomiting and diarrhea.
  • Decreased fetal movements.

What should I do if I have any signs of premature labor?

Call your health care provider right away if you have:

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

Lie down and check for contractions if you have any of the following signs of premature labor:

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

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.

If you have four or more contractions in one hour that do not go away after changing your position or relaxing, call your health care provider.  Also call your health care provider.  Also, call your health care provider if the symptoms noted here do not go away in one hour or if the pain is severe and persistent.

Timing your contractions

Write down the time at the beginning of one contraction and again at the beginning of the next contraction.

What are false labor pains?

The muscles in your uterus will contract from about the fourth month of pregnancy.  Irregular, infrequent contractions are called Braxton-Hicks contractions (also known as “false labor pains”).

Sharp, shooting pains on either side of your abdomen (called round ligament pain) that travel into the groin might result from the stretching ligaments that support your growing uterus.

To ease your discomfort:

  • Try changing your position or activity.
  • Make sure you are drinking enough liquids (at least 6 to 8 glasses of water, juice or milk per day)
  • Try to rest

What happens if your health care provider instructs you to go to the hospital?

After talking to your health care provider about your signs of premature labor, he or she might tell you to go to the hospital.  Once you arrive:

  • You will be asked to wear a hospital gown.
  • Your pulse, blood pressure and temperature will be checked.
  • A monitor will be placed on your abdomen to check the baby’s heart rate and evaluate uterine contractions.
  • Your cervix will be checked to see if it is opening.

If you are in premature labor, you might receive medicine to stop labor so your baby has ore time to develop in the uterus.  If the labor has progressed and cannot be stopped, you might need to deliver your baby.  If you are not in premature labor, you will be able to go home.