Preterm Labor & Preterm Birth


A full-term pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks, giving the baby the time it needs to fully develop. In some pregnancies, women go into labor too early, a complication known as “preterm” or premature labor. Labor is considered preterm if it starts before 37 weeks of pregnancy.

Preterm labor can lead to preterm or premature birth, putting the baby at risk of serious, lifelong health issues.

Know Your Risk

While all women are at risk of preterm labor and birth, one of the most significant risk factors is a history of prior preterm delivery.

Other factors that increase your risk of preterm labor and birth include:

  • Having a short cervix
  • Pregnant with twins, triplets or other multiples
  • Short interval between pregnancies
  • Infection
  • History of surgery of the uterus or cervix
  • Certain medical conditions, including high blood pressure, diabetes and placenta previa
  • African American ethnicity
  • Lifestyle factors such as low pre-pregnancy weight or drug use during pregnancy

Symptoms of Preterm Labor

Knowing the warning signs of preterm labor can help expedite treatment and reduce the risks of premature birth.

Symptoms may include:

  • Contractions every 10 minutes or more frequently
  • Change in type or amount of vaginal discharge (blood, watery fluid or mucus)
  • Feeling of pressure in the pelvis
  • Low, dull backache
  • Cramps that feel like menstrual cramps
  • Abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea

If you experience symptoms of preterm labor, contact your healthcare provider immediately.

The Dangers of Preterm Birth

In 2014, preterm birth affected approximately 1 out of every 10 babies born in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). Preterm birth is a leading cause of infant death and a leading contributor to childhood disability.

A birth is preterm or premature when it occurs before 37 weeks of pregnancy – when many of the baby’s vital organs, including the lungs, brain and heart, are still developing. The more premature the birth, the greater the risks to the baby’s health and life.

Preterm babies may have complications that include:

  • Breathing problems
  • Heart problems
  • Feeding difficulties
  • Cerebral palsy
  • Developmental delay
  • Vision problems
  • Hearing problems

Reducing Your Risks

There are steps every woman can take to reduce her risk of giving birth too early, including:

  • Preconception planning. Visit with your healthcare provider before you get pregnant to assess your risks and how to reduce them.
  • Lifestyle changes. Simple changes like a healthy diet, not smoking, and taking prenatal vitamins can help reduce your risks and give your baby the healthiest possible start to life. 
  • Early and frequent prenatal care. Regular prenatal care is critical for early detection and treatment of preterm labor.

Diagnosing Preterm Labor

Preterm labor may be suspected by by:

  • Assessment of your symptoms
  • Monitoring of your contractions
  • Pelvic exam to look for changes in the cervix
  • Ultrasound to evaluate your cervix
  • Lab testing of vaginal secretions

Treatment of Preterm Labor

Treatment will depend on your pregnancy, your risk factors, and the health of you and your unborn baby.

In general, treatment may include:

  • Specialized obstetric care
  • Frequent prenatal visits for close monitoring
  • Medications or other treatment such as cervical cerclage, if indicated
  • Hospitalization, if needed
  • Corticosteroids if needed to speed up development of the baby’s lungs and other organs
  • Magnesium sulfate to potentially reduce the risk of cerebral palsy associated with early preterm delivery
  • A multidisciplinary medical and surgical team, including maternal-fetal medicine specialists, fetal surgeons, neonatologists and pediatric specialists, as needed
  • Delivery at a facility equipped to address the needs of premature babies

The Benefits of Specialized Care

At Texas Children’s Pavilion for Women, we are highly trained and experienced in evaluating and managing pregnancies that involve the risk of preterm labor and delivery.

We offer:

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