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Preterm Labor Alert

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You've probably heard that as you near your due date, your uterus contracts occasionally as it grows, stretches, and "practices" for giving birth. These practice contractions are called Braxton-Hicks contractions and they are perfectly normal. 

However, about 10 percent of pregnant women experience preterm labor contractions. Unlike Braxton-Hicks, preterm labor contractions are the real thing. They indicate your labor is starting before your baby is ready to be born. 

How can you tell whether you're experiencing Braxton-Hicks or preterm labor contractions? The differences are mostly in the frequency, intensity, and duration. Here's what to look for:

  Braxton-Hicks Contractions

  Preterm Labor Contractions

  Stopping Preterm Labor

  Preventing Preterm Labor

Braxton-Hicks Contractions

You'll start to notice Braxton-Hicks contractions in your third trimester. They may feel like a generalized tightening of your uterus, almost as though it were balling up; or they may feel like the baby is doing a somersault. The contractions usually aren't painful and almost always stop after an hour or so. Although all women have Braxton-Hicks, not all women feel them, particularly with their first baby. So don't be alarmed if you never experience them.

Preterm Labor Contractions

Preterm labor contractions can occur anytime between the 20th and 37th week of pregnancy. They do not stop, and they may become more frequent, regular, and uncomfortable over time. 

Other signs of preterm labor include: 
• Menstrual-like cramps above the pubic bone
• Pressure or achy feeling in the pelvis, thighs, or groin
• Dull, low backache or back pressure
• Intestinal cramping or diarrhea
• Increased vaginal discharge
• Watery fluid, pinkish or brownish discharge, or blood coming from the vagina

If you experience any of these symptoms or more than four contractions in an hour, call your health care provider immediately. You may be asked to come in to be checked, or your provider may want you to time your contractions. You can feel the contractions (your uterus tightening and relaxing) by placing your fingertips lightly on your abdomen.

Stopping Preterm Labor

If you begin preterm labor, your provider will suggest ways to stop it. She may send you home for bed rest—lying in bed, usually on your left side to improve circulation to your uterus. You may also be asked to drink lots of fluids, which can inhibit the hormones that cause contractions. In addition, your provider may decide to prescribe medication to stop the contractions. Usually, a combination of these steps will halt preterm labor. 

If the contractions continue, you may be admitted to the hospital so your provider can monitor you more closely. 

If preterm labor can't be stopped and the baby is born, the birth is then called "preterm." When a baby arrives prematurely—before the due date—he might be very small and have problems breathing, eating, keeping his body temperature at a normal level, and developing body organs. A preterm baby is cared for in a special Neonatal Intensive Care Unit (NICU), where special assistance helps the baby develop properly.

Preventing Preterm Labor

You can also take precautions that may help prevent preterm labor from starting in the first place: 

    • Drink eight ounces of juice or water every couple of hours to prevent dehydration, which could make your uterus more "irritable."
    • Eat a healthy diet and gain 25 to 35 pounds during your pregnancy.
    • Keep your bladder empty to decrease the chance of a urinary tract infection (UTI), which can increase the risk of preterm labor contractions.
    • Always wipe from front to back after urinating or having a bowel movement, to prevent a UTI.
    • Wear cotton undergarments. Cotton "breathes" better than other fabrics, and the more air flow, the less risk of bacterial growth.
    • Stop smoking, and don't use drugs or alcohol.
    • Use condoms when having vaginal intercourse.
    • Avoid having sex with multiple partners.
    • Sit down with your legs elevated every hour or so, and don't lift heavy objects.
    • Stop physical activity and rest if you experience contractions that don't stop within a short time.
    • Try to decrease the stress in your life. 

The possibility of preterm labor is scary, but most women experience only Braxton-Hicks contractions. The best thing you can do right now is pay close attention to your uterine activity, take good care of yourself, and stay in contact with your provider should anything unusual develop.


Member comments

I liked the article. But "use condoms"? Really? Do you really believe using latex and the lube that ..

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