What Are the Signs and Symptoms of Preterm Labor?

As you prepare for the arrival of your new baby, you might be wondering about the possibility of preterm labor. Although there’s no sure way to know if preterm labor will occur during pregnancy, our article will explore the risk factors and ways to reduce your chances. You will learn what preterm labor is, the common symptoms to be aware of, and the underlying causes. Armed with this knowledge, you may be better equipped to identify early symptoms and seek the necessary support for a healthy pregnancy and birth.

What Is Preterm Labor?

What is considered preterm labor? Preterm labor is defined as the onset of labor before 37 weeks of pregnancy. The onset of contractions during preterm labor can lead to changes in the cervix, such as cervical effacement and dilation. In simpler terms, it’s when your body starts getting ready for birth too early in your pregnancy. It’s crucial to detect preterm labor early because it may lead to premature birth, which might pose several health risks to the baby. Remember, if you’re experiencing symptoms of preterm labor, don't hesitate to seek medical attention. Your healthcare providers are there to help you and ensure the safety of both you and your baby.

Signs and Symptoms of Preterm Labor

If you’re under 37 weeks pregnant, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the signs and symptoms of preterm labor. If you notice any of the following, contact your healthcare provider:

  • Menstrual-like cramps above the pubic bone (with or without diarrhea)

  • Pressure or an achy feeling in the pelvis, thighs, or groin

  • A dull lower backache or pressure

  • Intestinal cramping or diarrhea

  • Increased vaginal discharge

  • Watery fluid, pinkish or brownish discharge, or blood coming from the vagina

  • Your water breaks

  • Contractions that occur frequently and at regular intervals.

Call your healthcare provider immediately if you experience any of these signs of labor. You may be wondering, “What do contractions associated with preterm labor feel like?” Contractions associated with preterm and full-term labor feel like the tightening and relaxing of your uterus. They’re regular and progress over time. If you experience more than four contractions in an hour, contact your healthcare provider. You may be asked to come in to be checked or to time your contractions. Your provider will tell you precisely what to do if this becomes necessary, but until then you could use our downloadable contraction tracker You can feel the contractions by placing your fingertips lightly on your abdomen. Using a contractions tracker gives you an idea of how often your contractions are coming and how long each one lasts so that you can give this info to your healthcare provider.

What Are the Causes and Risk Factors of Preterm Labor?

Though the exact cause of preterm labor often remains unclear, certain risk factors may increase the likelihood of experiencing this condition:

  • Previous preterm birth. If you’ve had a preterm birth before, you’re more likely to have another one in a future pregnancy.

  • Multiple pregnancy. Being pregnant with more than one baby (twins, triplets, etc.) can heighten the risk of preterm labor.

  • Lifestyle factors. Smoking, substance abuse, low body mass index before pregnancy, and extreme stress levels can put a pregnancy at higher risk.

  • Short time between pregnancies. Pregnancies spaced less than 12 months apart may increase the chance of preterm labor.

  • Short cervix. Certain structural anomalies of the uterus or cervix, or certain gynecological complications you’ve had in the past may increase the risk.

  • Pregnancy complications. If you develop complications or infections during pregnancy, it can increase the risk.

Remember, having one or more of these risk factors doesn’t guarantee you’ll experience preterm labor, but being aware of them helps you and your healthcare provider make informed decisions about your pregnancy care.

How Is Preterm Labor Diagnosed?

If you experience any of the signs and symptoms listed above, contact your healthcare provider immediately. They will then diagnose preterm labor by using a combination of your medical history, a physical exam, and certain tests. Here are some of the methods your healthcare provider will use to diagnose preterm labor:

  • A physical exam. They may perform a physical examination to check for changes in your cervix or measure the length of your cervix with an ultrasound.

  • Monitoring your contractions. Your healthcare provider may monitor your contractions over a few hours.

  • Fetal Fibronectin Test. This test involves taking a swab of the secretions near the cervix and vagina, which is then tested for a protein called fetal fibronectin. This protein acts like a glue between the amniotic sac and the uterus, and it’s usually discharged during labor.

  • Ultrasound. An ultrasound scan may be performed to check your baby’s size, gestational age, or position, or to check for any problems.

Remember, early detection is the key to managing preterm labor effectively. Therefore, it’s crucial to communicate openly with your healthcare provider about any concerns or symptoms you may have.

How to Avoid Preterm Delivery

If you’re experiencing preterm labor, it’s natural to wonder if it can be stopped to avoid preterm delivery. Although preterm labor can’t be stopped, there are ways to delay it. If you begin preterm labor, your provider will discuss with you whether it’s best to delay or continue with delivery. This is based on the health of you and your baby, how far along labor is, and whether your little one would benefit from a delay. If your healthcare provider recommends delaying delivery, they may decide to prescribe certain medications to either help speed up the development of your baby’s organs, reduce the risk of certain complications, or help delay delivery.

How to Prevent Preterm Labor

You can take precautions throughout your pregnancy to help promote a healthy pregnancy and reduce your risk of preterm labor.

  • Eat a healthy, balanced diet and stay hydrated.

  • Attend your regular prenatal checkups and keep open communication with your healthcare provider about your medical history and any signs or symptoms you experience throughout your pregnancy.

  • Maintain a healthy lifestyle and avoid smoking, alcohol, and illegal substances

  • Maintain a healthy weight before and during pregnancy. Your healthcare provider can help you stay on track.

  • Reduce the risk of infections by washing your hands regularly, practicing safe sex, avoiding consumption of raw meat, fish, eggs, and unpasteurized cheese, and delegating the task of changing your cat's litter to someone else.

  • Empty your bladder frequently and always wipe from front to back to prevent a urinary tract infection.

  • Consider waiting at least 18 months between pregnancies.

  • Try to decrease your stress levels.

If you’ve experienced a preterm birth in the past or you have other risk factors, your healthcare provider might suggest certain treatments and medications to reduce your risk of having another preterm birth in the future.

When to Contact Your Healthcare Provider

It’s important to keep a watchful eye for signs of preterm labor and to reach out to your healthcare provider if you suspect anything unusual. Here are some symptoms not to ignore during pregnancy that indicate it’s time to contact your healthcare provider:

  • If you have any of the above-listed symptoms of preterm labor, even if they seem mild or come and go, it’s important to contact your healthcare provider right away.

  • If you notice a significant change in your baby’s movement, such as the baby moving less often.

  • If you have any vaginal bleeding, a gush of fluid, or an increase in vaginal discharge, these could be signs of preterm labor.

  • If you have any concerns or questions about what you’re feeling.

It’s always best to prioritize your and your baby’s health. If you’re unsure, don’t hesitate to reach out to your healthcare provider.

The Bottom Line

Preterm labor is when labor starts before 37 weeks of pregnancy, so whether you’re 25, 28, 30, 32, or 34 weeks pregnant, you should contact your healthcare provider if you experience any of the signs and symptoms listed in our article. The possibility of preterm labor can be daunting; however, the best thing you can do is pay close attention to your uterine activity, take good care of yourself, and stay in contact with your provider should anything unusual develop. If your labor does start a little earlier than you bargained for, you won’t want to waste precious time packing, so always have your hospital bag packed and ready, just to be on the safe side.

How We Wrote This Article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment.