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Preterm Labor: What You Need to Know

Preterm labor can happen to any woman: Only about half the women who have preterm labor fall into any known risk group. About 12 percent of births (1 in 8) in the United States are preterm. Babies who are born preterm are at higher risk of needing hospitalization, having long-term health problems and of dying than babies born at the right time.

Three groups of women are at greatest risk of preterm labor and birth:

  • Women who have had a previous preterm birth
  • Women who are pregnant with twins, triplets or more
  • Women with certain uterine or cervical abnormalities

Preterm labor may sometimes be stopped with a combination of medication and rest. More often, birth can be delayed just long enough to transport the woman to a hospital with a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) and to give her a drug to help speed up her baby's lung development.

Treatment with a form of the hormone progesterone may help prevent premature birth in some women who have already had a premature baby.

What you can do:

Call your health care provider or go to the hospital right away if you think you are having preterm labor. The signs of preterm labor include:

  • Contractions (your abdomen tightens like a fist) every 10 minutes or more often
  • Change in vaginal discharge (leaking fluid or bleeding from your vagina)
  • Pelvic pressure—the feeling that your baby is pushing down
  • Low, dull backache
  • Cramps that feel like your period
  • Abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea

Your provider may tell you to:

  • Come into the office or go to the hospital
  • Stop what you're doing. Rest on your left side for one hour
  • Drink 2-3 glasses of water or juice (not coffee or soda)

If the symptoms get worse or do not go away after one hour, call your health care provider again or go to the hospital. If the symptoms go away, relax for the rest of the day. If the symptoms stop but come back, call your health care provider again or go to the hospital.

You don't need to have all the symptoms to have preterm labor. Take action even if you have only one.

If you have already had a premature baby, ask your health care provider if progesterone treatment might help prevent another early birth.

Content courtesy of the The March of Dimes.