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.