Preterm Labor: Symptoms and Causes | Tampa General Hospital

Preterm Labor 

In some cases, physicians can stop preterm labor, thereby giving the baby more time to develop. Preterm labor (also referred to as premature labor) occurs when a woman goes into labor more than three weeks before her due date. Pregnancy generally lasts approximately 40 weeks, so labor would be considered preterm if it starts before the woman reaches the 37-week point. 

Causes of Preterm Labor 

Preterm labor occurs when contractions force a woman’s cervix to open (dilate) earlier than it normally would. This can happen to anyone, but certain risk factors can increase a woman’s chances of going into labor early, including: 

  • Conceiving before the age of 17 or after the age of 35 
  • Being overweight or underweight before conceiving 
  • Conceiving less than 18 months after giving birth to another baby 
  • Conceiving after receiving in vitro fertilization (IVF) 
  • Carrying more than one baby at once (for example, twins or triplets) 
  • Carrying a baby with certain birth defects, such as spina bifida or a heart defect 
  • Failing to get prenatal care on time or at all 
  • Failing to gain enough weight while pregnant 
  • Smoking, drinking alcohol or abusing drugs while pregnant 
  • Being stressed while pregnant 
  • Experiencing vaginal bleeding during the second or third trimester 
  • Experiencing preterm premature rupture of the membranes (PPROM) 
  • Having certain health conditions, such as diabetes, high blood pressure (hypertension), preeclampsia, Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), vascular Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (vEDS), intrahepatic cholestasis of pregnancy (ICP), thrombophilia or sexually transmitted infections (STIs) 
  • Having previously given birth to a premature baby 
  • Having a family history of premature birth 
  • Having a history of problems with the uterus or cervix 

Symptoms of Preterm Labor 

Signs of preterm labor include: 

  • Contractions 
  • Back pain (this pain can come and go or remain consistent, and can present as a dull ache or a tightening sensation) 
  • Lower abdominal cramping 
  • Nausea and vomiting 
  • Diarrhea 
  • A feeling of pressure within the pelvis or the vagina 
  • Menstrual-like cramps 
  • A sudden increase of vaginal discharge 
  • A change in the type of vaginal discharge 
  • Leakage of fluid from the vagina 
  • Vaginal bleeding 
  • A decrease in how often the baby is moving 

Diagnosing Preterm Labor 

If a woman suspects that she might be going into preterm labor, she should immediately contact her healthcare provider, who will be able to let her know whether she needs to go to the hospital. If she does, the hospital staff will likely: 

  • Check her temperature, blood pressure and pulse 
  • Monitor the baby’s heart rate 
  • Evaluate the woman’s contractions 
  • Check her cervix to determine whether it has started opening

Treatment for Preterm Labor

Many people assume that when a woman goes into preterm labor, she will have to give birth to a premature baby. Although that does sometimes happen, in many instances physicians are able to stop the labor using: 

  • Medication 
  • Intravenous (IV) fluids 
  • Bed rest 

When appropriate, stopping preterm labor can reduce the risk of complications and provide the child with additional time to develop before being born. 

In other cases, preterm labor will have progressed to a point where it can’t be stopped, and the woman will have to proceed with the delivery. The obstetrics specialists at Tampa General Hospital will be able to let you know which option is most appropriate for your situation. 

Tampa General Hospital has been awarded on Newsweek’s list of Best Maternity Hospitals 2022. This prestigious award is presented by Newsweek and Statista Inc., the world-leading statistics portal and industry ranking provider.