Woman with Labor pains

Understanding Premature Labor

Even if you followed every direction your OBGYN provided and adhered to every piece of advice from that stack of pregnancy books, preterm labor and premature birth can still happen.

In general, preterm labor is labor symptoms that occur prior to the 37th week of pregnancy.  Some preliminary preterm labor symptoms are actually common, occur intermittently, and are nothing to be overly concerned about, but there are others that need to be taken seriously and will require an expectant mother to seek medical care as soon as possible. With premature births again on the rise, it’s important to know the symptoms of preterm labor, what you can do to help prevent it, and what you should do if you can’t for the health and safety of you and your baby.

Contractions: When to Relax, When to Pay Attention

The symptoms of preterm labor and a regular, healthy pregnancy can overlap a great deal, so it’s important to know when to relax and when to be more concerned. One of the most common and readily noticed symptoms is uterine contractions, which happen throughout pregnancy and increase in frequency during the last trimester (the final three months) of your pregnancy term. Braxton-Hicks contractions are irregular, more uncomfortable than painful,  and don’t happen rhythmically or increase in intensity. They are often called “practice contractions” and are almost never an indicator of preterm labor starting.

While uterine contractions alone are rarely a cause for concern, there is a time to take them more seriously. Contact your OBGYN if you are experiencing any of the following:

  • Contractions that are causing intense lower back pain
  • Contractions that are occurring four or more times in an hour
  • Contractions happening at regularly timed intervals and increasing in intensity
  • Contractions accompanied by a mucous or bloody vaginal discharge

These symptoms typically indicate that changes are taking place in your cervix (the lower part of your uterus) and they are likely a sign you are going into labor and need to seek the advice of your care provider as to what further actions are needed.

Evaluating the Situation

Depending on the intensity of your symptoms, your pregnancy and labor care provider will do their best to determine the best course of action. If they suspect you’re experiencing preterm labor, they will likely administer at least one of  these tests:

  • A pelvic exam to check if your cervix is dilated and/or effaced
  • Monitoring your uterus to look at the strength and frequency of your contractions
  • Conduct an ultrasound to check on the baby’s size and position.
  • An amniocentesis to check on the maturity of the baby’s lungs.

While these tests may sound a little intimidating, they are the best way for your healthcare provider to better understand the situation and make educated decisions about next steps.

Home Care Options

If you’re experiencing contractions but your cervix remains unchanged, your OBGYN might possibly send you back home and encourage one or all of the following steps in an attempt to try stave off full labor:

  • Drink lots of water. Studies have shown that dehydration can have an effect on preterm labor.
  • Bedrest. Limiting your physical activity and staying off your feet can help to stop the early symptoms of preterm labor.
  • Avoid stimulation. Keeping yourself in a relaxed and calm state can help dial back early labor.

When You Need Emergency Care

If any of the following issues occur prior to your 37th week, it’s important you seek care immediately for the health of both you and your baby:

  • Your water breaks
  • You notice spotting or bleeding
  • You have four or more intense contractions in an hour

Educating yourself on these important facts about pregnancy and working in close communication with your OBGYN, you have a much better chance of reaching a happy and healthy full term pregnancy.