What are Some Signs of Preterm Labor?

Margo Upson
Margo Upson

Preterm labor is considered any labor that starts before the pregnancy has reached thirty-seven weeks gestation. Before that point, a fetus is not prepared to survive outside the womb, as the lungs and other major organs will not have developed enough. Any infant born before thirty-seven weeks in considered premature. Although some infants can survive after twenty two weeks gestation with a lot of medical help, they are at a high risk for complications.

Intense menstrual cramps may be a sign of preterm labor.
Intense menstrual cramps may be a sign of preterm labor.

There are several signs of preterm labor. If you are pregnant, it is essential that you know what they are, and how to recognize them. There is a lot that can be done to slow down or even stop labor before thirty seven weeks. Steroids can be given to the fetus to help speed up lung development. The key is to be in a hospital in time for these methods to be given a chance to work.

A fetus is viable after 37 weeks gestation.
A fetus is viable after 37 weeks gestation.

One of the most obvious signs of preterm labor are contractions. Contractions feel like your abdomen is tightening up, or like intense menstrual cramps. Some Braxton-Hicks contractions, or false labor, are normal in the third trimester, but you shouldn’t have more than four an hour. If you are experiencing contractions, and aren’t sure if they are Braxton–Hicks or the real thing, drink a cup of water and lay on your right side for thirty minutes. The contractions should stop. If they don’t, call your doctor or midwife, and head to the nearest hospital.

Pre-term labor can include Braxton-Hicks contractions in the third trimester.
Pre-term labor can include Braxton-Hicks contractions in the third trimester.

Another one of the signs of preterm labor is passing the mucus plug. The mucus plug is a thickened layer of normal vaginal secretions that has been blocking your cervix during the course of your pregnancy. It may be tinged with blood. It can be difficult to know the difference between the mucus plug and regular secretions. Generally speaking, if it seems like a lot more discharge than normal, or if it’s a different color or texture, you should get checked out.

Premature babies often stay in the NICU through their original due date.
Premature babies often stay in the NICU through their original due date.

Bleeding during pregnancy, especially after the first trimester, is almost always a sign of something going wrong. It could be a sign of preterm labor. It could also be a sign of placental abruption, where the placenta breaks away from the walls of the uterus. Even if it is not accompanied by any cramping or pain, get to a hospital as soon as possible. Call your doctor on your way there.

Increased pressure in the pelvic region, a feeling of something bearing down, is another one of the signs of preterm labor. Similarly, back pain could be another sign, especially if it is a new symptom. Either of these could mean that labor is imminent, or has already begun.

Especially during the last trimester of a pregnancy, any time a mother-to-be feels that something is even just a little bit off, she should be checked out by her doctor or midwife. Many women don’t know when actual, full-term, labor is starting. Preterm labor can be even harder to self-diagnose. Almost 12% of babies in the US are born preterm. About half of those are intentional, for medical purposes. The rest are spontaneous. Fortunately, there are a lot of great hospitals with neonatal intensive care units (NICU) with medical professional trained to deal with preterm babies.

One of the most important things a new mother-to-be should learn during her pregnancy is the signs of preterm labor. Sometimes, something as simple as more rest and more fluids can keep labor at bay until the fetus is more developed. It is essential, however, to be aware of the signs so you can get the help you need.

Increased pressure in the pelvic region could be a sign of preterm labor.
Increased pressure in the pelvic region could be a sign of preterm labor.
Margo Upson
Margo Upson

Margo has a varied academic background, which has involved everything from psychology and culinary arts to criminal justice and education. These wide-ranging interests make her an ideal wiseGEEK writer, as she always enjoys becoming an expert on new and unfamiliar topics.

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