Preterm labor, or premature labor, is when labor begins before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Before 38 weeks it's referred to as late preterm labor. While it is generally true that babies "know when to be born," sometimes labor and birth happen before a safe time, for a variety of reasons. When you're pregnant, it's important to know the signs of preterm labor in order to know what action to take to keep you and your baby safe.
Signs of Preterm Labor
One of the most defining signs of labor -- at anytime during pregnancy -- is regular contractions. Contractions that come in a pattern, or grow longer, stronger, and closer together signal that you are in labor, early labor, or that labor and birth may come soon. If these contractions happen before 37 weeks, you need to call your obstetrician or midwife, or head directly into the hospital or chosen birth place.
In addition to contractions, here are other important signs of preterm labor:
- Change in vaginal discharge -- either amount or type or both; look for more watery, more mucous, or bloody
- Pressure (increase in heaviness or "pushing down" feeling) in pelvis or low belly
- Constant low, dull backache
- Stomach/intestinal cramping, with or without diarrhea
- Your water breaks - either gush or trickle of fluid
- Regular contractions or tightening of your belly where it feels very hard -- they may be painful or not
It's also important to note here that if you experience bleeding at any time from your vagina, it may be a sign of a problem, including preterm labor, and you should call your care provider or visit the hospital immediately.
What to Do if You Think You're Experiencing Premature Labor
If you have any of the above signs -- even just one -- contact your doctor, OB, or midwife right away. Even if you only think you might be experiencing preterm labor, call. If it's after hours or if you have several signs and/or your labor seems to be moving forward, go directly to your nearest hospital or your chosen hospital for birth to be seen right away. If you're experiencing preterm labor, getting medical help quickly is the best thing you can do. When you are examined, your health care provider will perform tests to determine if you are in labor or are in danger of labor starting prematurely, and may administer medication to stop labor. At the very least, you can expect to spend a few or several hours in the hospital to monitor you for signs of labor.