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Going into labor before your 37th week of pregnancy is called preterm labor. Preterm labor can cause your baby to be born too soon. This can lead to a number of health problems that may affect your baby.
If you believe you’re having preterm labor, get medical help right away. But contractions alone don’t mean you’re in preterm labor. What matters more are changes in your cervix (the lower end of the uterus). Symptoms of preterm labor include:
Four or more contractions per hour
Constant menstrual-like cramping
Mucous or bloody vaginal discharge
Bleeding or spotting in the second or third trimester
Your doctor will try to find out whether you’re in preterm labor or whether you’re just having contractions. He or she may watch you for a few hours. The following tests may be done:
Pelvic exam to see if your cervix has effaced (thinned) and dilated (opened)
Uterine activity monitoring to detect contractions
Fetal monitoring to check the health of your baby
Ultrasound to check your baby’s size and position
Amniocentesis to check how mature your baby’s lungs are
If you have contractions preterm but your cervix is still thick and closed, your doctor may ask you to do the following at home:
Drink plenty of water.
Do fewer activities.
Rest in bed on your side.
Avoid intercourse and nipple stimulation.
Call your doctor or other healthcare provider if you notice any of these:
Bag of water breaks
Bleeding or spotting
Preterm labor often requires that you have hospital care and complete bed rest. You may have an IV (intravenous) line to get fluids. And you may be given pills or an injection to help prevent contractions. Finally, you may receive medication (corticosteroids) that helps your baby’s lungs mature more quickly.
Any pregnant woman can have preterm labor. It may start for no reason. But these risk factors can increase your chances:
Past preterm labor or past early birth
Smoking and drug or alcohol use during pregnancy
Multiple fetuses (twins or more)
Problems with the shape of the uterus
Bleeding during the pregnancy
A baby born too soon may have health problems. This is because the baby didn’t have enough time to mature. The baby then is at risk of:
Not breastfeeding well
Having immature lungs
Bleeding in the brain
Your goal is to get as close to term as you can before giving birth. The closer you get to term, the higher your chance of having a healthy baby. Work with your healthcare provider. Together, you can take steps that may keep you from giving birth too early.