What you need to know about preterm labor

November 17, 2015 Providence Health Team

Pregnancy comes with a range of emotions: excitement, joy, nervousness and stress. One thing most moms-to-be worry about is keeping the baby safe and healthy until he’s ready to leave the womb—ideally between 39 and 41 weeks, which is considered a full-term pregnancy.

When a baby is born between 37 and 39 weeks, the pregnancy is considered “early term.” Labor that begins between 20 and 36 weeks is called “preterm labor,” also known as premature labor, which occurs in about 12 percent of pregnancies. Preterm babies have not had time to fully develop and, as a result, may face complications with breathing, feeding and staying warm.

Risk factors

Though the cause of preterm labor is not always known, certain factors may increase a woman’s risk. Talk with your doctor about the chance of preterm labor if:

  • You are pregnant with multiples
  • You have had a previous preterm birth
  • You have certain uterine/cervical abnormalities
  • You are overweight or underweight
  • You became pregnant less than six months after the birth of your last baby
  • You have a chronic health condition such as high blood pressure or diabetes

Signs of preterm labor

If you suspect you’re going into preterm labor, contact your physician immediately. She may recommend full or partial bed rest, and possibly medication to prevent contractions.

  • Five or more uterine contractions in an hour, with or without pain
  • Pelvic pressure (a feeling of the baby moving down)
  • Dull ache in the lower back
  • Cramps with or without diarrhea
  • A change or increase in vaginal discharge


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