Preterm Labor

What is Preterm Labor?

Preterm Labor is also known as premature labor. A mature pregnancy lasts at least 40 weeks. A preterm labor is a series of contractions of the uterus at week 37 or earlier. The big problem with preterm labor is that it leads to the birth of a premature baby, which is predisposed to a variety of medical conditions in later life like cerebral palsy, asthma and attention deficit/hyperactivity disorder (ADHD.)

The cause of preterm labor is unknown, but women considered at high risk of having preterm labor can be treated. Women at high risk include mothers who have already had a premature birth; women pregnant with more than one baby; women with current or past problems of the cervix or uterus; having a cervix shorter than normal; abusing drugs while pregnant; smokers; mothers under 17 and women who do not get regular checkups during their pregnancies.

What are the Symptoms of Preterm Labor?

Common symptoms of preterm labor are aches in the lower back; change in vaginal discharge; sudden increase in vaginal discharge; abdominal cramps that feel like menstrual cramps; diarrhea; feeling contractions that usually are not painful and having waters break. Some also women also pass blood.

Others feel a great pressure pushing down on their pelvis. Call a doctor or obstetrician right away. Going to a hospital is often necessary because a pelvic exam and a transvaginal ultrasound need to be performed in order to diagnose preterm labor.

Preterm Labor Causes

Preterm labor occurs when the cervix opens earlier than week 37 of pregnancy as a result of uterine contractions. However, there is a wide range of potential causes of these uterine contractions. In many cases, the cause is unknown, but there are certain factors which can increase the risk of preterm labor, and these give us some clues as to the causes.

Firstly, the following lifestyle factors can increase the risk of preterm labor:

  • Alcohol and substance abuse
  • Domestic violence
  • Lack of prenatal care
  • Long working hours with lots of standing
  • Smoking
  • Stress

There are also medical factors which could cause premature labor, such as:

  • Anemia
  • Being underweight or overweight
  • Blood clotting disorders
  • Chronic bladder or kidney infections
  • Diabetes
  • Infection and fever during pregnancy
  • High blood pressure
  • Kidney disease
  • Previous multiple abortions
  • Previous pregnancy less than six months before current pregnancy
  • Sexually transmitted infections
  • Vaginal bleeding after week 20 of pregnancy
  • Vaginal infections

Women who are pregnant with multiple babies are also at risk of preterm labor, as are those who have had premature births in the past. It’s also possible for women with uterine or cervical abnormalities to give birth prematurely.

How is Preterm Labor Treated?

According to the American Congress of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, for 30% of women feeling preterm labor will have the symptoms go away on their own within an hour.

The doctor may instruct the mother to lie on her left side and drink two or three glasses of water or juice. If symptoms do not go away in one hour, then the mother needs to go to the hospital.

Sometimes the labor can be delayed with medications like tocolytics. Medications like magnesium sulfate and corticosteroids are given to help the baby will not wait and birth is immanent.

Preterm Labor Prevention

Sometimes preterm labor occurs for reasons completely beyond our control. However, to reduce the risk of it happening, you should strive to have as healthy a pregnancy as possible. This begins with prenatal care, where a doctor, midwife or another healthcare professional can routinely monitor your health, give you advice on how to keep yourself and baby healthy, and identify things which could put you at risk of preterm labor.

Secondly, avoid harmful substances which are known to cause early labor. Smoking, alcohol and illegal drugs are particularly serious ones, but certain medications and foods can also affect the health of your baby. Consult your healthcare provider for advice on what you should be avoiding and for help with quitting tobacco, alcohol or drugs if relevant to you.

Eat a balanced diet that is rich in folic acid, calcium and iron as these are particularly important for health during pregnancy. Prenatal supplements may be of benefit if you feel that there could be gaps in the nutrition from your diet.