Pregnancy is a great time to enjoy yourself; after all, you get to watch your baby grow and develop! Unfortunately, pregnancy can also be a scary time for some women, mainly because there are so many complications to worry about. Many pregnant women worry about going into preterm labor. Preterm labor is a very serious pregnancy complication, as it could put you and your baby at risk for future health problems. In order to reduce your chances of experiencing preterm labor, be sure that you are familiar with the symptoms of the condition and the steps that you can take to prevent it.
What is Preterm Labor?
Also known as premature labor, preterm labor occurs when you begin to experience regular contractions or cervical dilation before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Usually, a typical pregnancy lasts anywhere between 38 and 42 weeks. Your baby needs to spend this amount of time in your uterus in order to ensure that his organs and tissues are properly developed.
Preterm labor is a risky complication. If labor begins too early, there is the chance that your baby could be born prematurely. Premature birth puts your baby at increased risk for certain serious health complications and fetal development problems.
Who Experiences Preterm Labor?
Preterm labor is actually fairly common in the United States. 12% of all babies born here are premature; this works out to about 1 in every 8 babies. Sometimes, premature labor is induced, especially if you are experiencing certain health complications, like preeclampsia.
Any pregnant woman can experience preterm labor, however, there are certain factors that could increase your chances of going into early labor . These risk factors include:
- being under 17 or over 35 years of age
- having experienced a previous preterm birth
- carrying twins or higher order multiples
- experiencing poor weight gain during pregnancy
- smoking, drinking alcohol, or doing drugs during pregnancy
Preterm Labor Causes
Preterm labor is usually the result of a combination of factors. Some factors that may contribute to early labor, include:
- Infection: Infections, like chlamydia, trichomoniasis, and bacterial vaginosis, can weaken the membranes that surround your amniotic sac. This could lead to premature rupture of the membranes and preterm labor.
- Placental Problems: Placental complications like placenta previa and placental abruption may trigger preterm labor.
- Abnormal Uterus: Structural problems with your uterus could also trigger preterm labor. A particularly large uterus (common with multiple births) or a short cervix (less than 25 millimeters), can lead to early labor.
- Chronic Illness: Illnesses, such as sickle cell disease, lupus, and diabetes can trigger early labor.
- Trauma: Injury to the abdomen or uterus can also be a contributing factor in some cases of preterm labor.
Signs of Preterm Labor
It is essential that every pregnant woman is able to recognize the signs of preterm labor. Being able to spot these symptoms can go a long way to reducing your baby's risks for associated health complications. Keep an eye out for these symptoms of preterm labor:
- abdominal contractions
- contractions accompanied by nausea, diarrhea, or indigestion
- preterm labor contractions occurring more than every ten minutes
- increased pressure in the thighs, vagina, or pelvic area
- increased lower back pressure
- vaginal bleeding
- increase or change in vaginal discharge (particularly bloody or mucus-like discharge)
What Happens During Preterm Labor?
If you think that you may be experiencing preterm labor, contact your health care provider immediately or go to the nearest hospital. You will likely be monitored for contractions and your caregiver will check your baby's heart rate for signs of distress. Your health care provider will also test you for any signs of infection and for cervical dilation or effacement. You may be given an ultrasound pregnancy test to check your baby's growth and the amount of amniotic fluid in your uterus.
Depending upon which week of pregnancy you are in, and if you are experiencing contractions, your health care provider may try to stall labor. If you are less than 34 weeks pregnant and your water has not broken, your caregiver may provide you with medications to help stop your labor contractions. You may also be given corticosteroids to help develop baby's lungs. If you are between 34 and 37 weeks pregnant and your water has broken, your health care provider may recommend inducing labor.
Risks Associated with Preterm Labor
Preterm labor can be risky for baby. If unaddressed, preterm labor can lead to preterm birth. Preterm birth puts your baby at increased risk for:
- brain abnormalities
- breathing problems
- digestive disorders
- delayed learning and development later in life
- health complications later in life
Preventing Preterm Labor
There are certain things that you can do to help prevent going into preterm labor.
- Maintain regular prenatal health checkups.
- Follow a healthy pregnancy diet.
- Avoid smoking, drinking, and drug use during pregnancy.
- Do not engage in strenuous physical activities.
- Tell your health care provider about any unusual pregnancy symptoms that you are experiencing.