Preterm Labor and Birth Causes and Risks

A pregnancy lasts around 37 to 40 weeks to be considered full-term. A woman who goes into labor before the 37th week of pregnancy goes into preterm labor, a term meaning labor that begins before the 39th week of pregnancy. Although an infant may be able to survive after 24 weeks, a host of medical issues typically arise which can leave a baby with a lifetime of disabilities and health issues. Preterm labor and birth can happen for a number of reasons, many of which can be prevented with the correct medical care.

Symptoms of Preterm Labor

Most women will know they’re in preterm labor if regular contractions begin before the 37th week of pregnancy and become more painful and close together as time goes by. However, there are other signs and symptoms that aren’t always as obvious as they can be confused with other forms of pain and issues with pregnancy, including:

  • Dull, constant pain in the lower back
  • Abdominal cramps
  • Rupturing of membranes (water breaking)
  • Pelvic pressure

Risk Factors of Preterm Labor and Birth

There are numerous risk factors that may result in preterm labor and birth, yet it’s important to note that not all risk factors will automatically result in early labor and birth. Some of the most common risk factors include:

  • Maternal fever of 101 degrees F or more during pregnancy
  • Continuous bladder and kidney infections
  • High blood pressure
  • Diabetes
  • Short time period between pregnancies (getting pregnant back-to-back)
  • Multiple abortions
  • Previous preterm deliveries
  • Placental problems, such as placenta previa or placental abruption
  • Little or no prenatal care
  • Failure of physicians to monitor, diagnose, and provide adequate treatment for maternal medical issues

How Preterm Labor is Diagnosed

If preterm labor is suspected, a physician typically perform a pelvic exam to determine if the uterus is opening. Additionally, a fetal ultrasound may be administered to determine the baby’s position, heartbeat rate, and movements. In some cases, a fetal fibronectin test is administered, which checks for fibronectin protein in the cervix.

Preterm Labor Treatment

Sometimes preterm labor can be stopped with medications used to hinder contractions, known as tocolytics. Antibiotics may be prescribed as well, along with the recommendation of bed rest. 

Possible Consequences of Preterm Labor and Birth

Physicians will do what they can to prolong the pregnancy, as the longer an infant is the womb, the better the chances of reducing health problems. If a preterm labor cannot be stopped, there are a myriad of medical issues that an infant is at risk for, including:

  • Lung problems (difficulties with breathing)
  • Developmental delays
  • Behavioral and emotional problems
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Vision problems
  • Hearing loss
  • Jaundice
  • Death
  • Cognitive disabilities
  • Anemia
  • Intraventricular hemorrhaging

If You Suspect Preterm Labor

If you have any or a combination the aforementioned preterm labor symptoms or just have an general uneasy feeling, contact your healthcare provider for further assistance. The only certain way to know for sure if you’ve went into premature labor is when a physician checks your cervix for dilation, administers testing, and performs an ultrasound.

Keep in mind, as mentioned earlier, preterm labor and birth doesn’t always mean that your baby will suffer from birth injuries or defects. However, it’s always a good idea to take care of yourself, get plenty of rest, and obtain prenatal care as soon as pregnancy is confirmed in order to reduce any risks.