You’ve probably heard that a typical pregnancy is 40 weeks, or approximately 9 months long. If you’re pregnant and deliver at 37 weeks or later, you’re considered to have had a full-term pregnancy that allowed your baby the maximum amount of time to develop in your uterus.
If you deliver your baby before 37 weeks, they’re considered to be born prematurely, before your baby has time to fully develop. One of the biggest risks of premature birth is going into preterm labor.
Understand from Anita Gondy, MD, Saovaros V. Michaels, MD, and Ankita Raman, MD, our OB/GYNs at Women's Health Associates of Southern Nevada, Northwest in Las Vegas, Nevada, everything you need to know about preterm labor and what to do if you experience it.
What is preterm labor?
Preterm labor means you begin going into labor before your 37th week of pregnancy. This means your cervix dilates, and you start experiencing contractions.
Unless your preterm labor is stopped, you’ll deliver your baby prematurely. Depending on how far along in your pregnancy you are, this puts your child at risk for birth defects or potentially being too young to survive outside the womb.
Risks of preterm labor
In some women, the cause of preterm labor is unclear, but certain risk factors increase your odds of early labor. One of the biggest risks is if you’ve experienced preterm labor during a previous pregnancy.
You’re also more likely to experience preterm labor if you have a shortened cervix, are pregnant with multiples, have certain chronic conditions or infections, or have problems with your placenta, uterus, or vaginal bleeding during pregnancy. Experiencing high levels of stress during pregnancy can also sometimes increase your risk.
Preterm labor symptoms
The most obvious sign of preterm labor is feeling as if you’re experiencing contractions. This means you feel tightening in your uterus or lower abdomen, especially if you experience this more than four times in an hour.
Other signs of preterm labor include:
- Continuous aching in your lower back
- Cramping or pressure in your abdomen
- Vaginal bleeding or spotting
- Vaginal discharge, especially if continuous
If you’re experiencing symptoms of preterm labor, contact our team right away to reduce your risk of preterm delivery.
Diagnosing preterm labor
When you suspect you’re in preterm labor, our team determines if you’re in labor through tests performed at our office or the hospital. These include a pelvic exam and monitoring your uterus with a uterine monitor.
Our team can also carry out a variety of tests to determine if you’re in labor, including a transvaginal ultrasound and lab tests to determine if the fetal sac is intact.
Stopping preterm delivery
If our team diagnoses you with preterm labor, treatment usually involves attempting to delay the delivery of your baby for as long as possible. Often, this means you need to reduce your physical activity or be on bed rest until you deliver your baby.
Bed rest sometimes requires hospitalization and sometimes can take place at home. Since your pregnancy is now high-risk, our team monitors you and your contractions frequently.
We might also give you medication to slow your labor, as well as medicines that help your baby develop and reduce the risk of serious complications if we need to deliver your baby early. If your preterm labor is caused by a short cervix, our team can perform a cervical cerclage, a procedure that sutures your cervix shut until you’re at full term.
By staying in frequent communication with our team and letting us know as soon as you have signs of preterm labor, you lower your risk of delivering your baby before they’re ready. If you think you might be experiencing preterm labor, call our office or emergency services for immediate diagnosis and treatment.