Preterm labor

Preterm labor occurs when regular contractions begin to open your cervix before 37 weeks of pregnancy. A full-term pregnancy should last about 40 weeks.

If preterm labor can't be stopped, your baby will be born early. The earlier premature birth happens, the greater the health risks for your baby. Many premature babies (preemies) need special care in the neonatal intensive care unit. Preemies can also have long-term mental and physical disabilities.

While the specific cause of preterm labor often isn't clear, certain risk factors may up the odds of early labor. But, preterm labor can also occur in pregnant women with no known risk factors. Still, it's a good idea to know if you're at risk of preterm labor and how you might help prevent it.

Symptoms Risk factors Complications Prevention

For some women, the signs and symptoms of preterm labor are unmistakable. For others, they're more subtle. During pregnancy, be on the lookout for:

  • Regular or frequent contractions — a tightening sensation in the abdomen
  • Constant low, dull backache
  • A sensation of pelvic or lower abdominal pressure
  • Mild abdominal cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Vaginal spotting or bleeding
  • Watery vaginal discharge (water breaking) — in a gush or a trickle
  • A change in vaginal discharge

If you're concerned about what you're feeling — especially if you have vaginal bleeding accompanied by abdominal cramps or pain — contact your health care provider right away. Don't worry about mistaking false labor for the real thing. Everyone will be pleased if it's a false alarm.

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