Preterm labor—labor that begins before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy—accounts for about 8 percent to 10 percent of births in the United States. Knowing the signs of preterm labor and taking immediate action if symptoms occur could help you carry your baby to term.
In most normal pregnancies, labor begins between weeks 38 and 42. However, in some cases, labor begins earlier in the pregnancy than it should, putting the baby at risk for complications.
A woman who is experiencing symptoms of labor prior to week 37 should immediately contact her healthcare provider because he or she may be able to stop the progression of labor through the use of oral or intravenous medication.
Contractions—tightening of the uterus that presents in a pattern (becoming consistently longer in duration, stronger and closer together)-are the most notable symptoms of premature labor. However, Braxton Hicks contractions—commonly felt throughout the third trimester—do not have a pattern. Although they may be uncomfortable, Braxton Hicks contractions are not typically “painful.”
If you begin experiencing contractions, lie down on your left side and rest for about an hour. Also, begin drinking fluids, as contractions can be brought on by dehydration.
It is extremely important to monitor the frequency of the contractions you are experiencing, as this is the main difference between irregular Braxton Hicks contractions and labor contractions. If the contractions are occurring every five minutes for at least 20 minutes or eight times every hour for more than one hour and do not subside after resting, contact your healthcare provider immediately.
Other signs to watch for include:
If you have concerns about any of your symptoms-especially if you are having vaginal bleeding or an increase in vaginal discharge—it is best to contact your doctor as soon as the symptoms occur, as it is better to be cautious than to wait too long for treatment.