Early symptoms of preterm labor

As the name implies, the early symptoms of preterm labor mostly revolve around an early birth. That is the long and the short of it, but in honor of the National Prematurity Awareness Month – in the midst of which we are right not – let’s delve a bit deeper into the matter. Numbers-wise, a preterm labor takes place when regular contractions start to open the cervix before 37 weeks of pregnancy – as opposed to the 40 that a normal pregnancy should last.

Preterm labor symptoms include:

·         Regular or frequent contractions – every 10 minutes or more often.

·         Constant low, dull back pain.

·         Pressure on the pelvis or lower abdomen – as if the phoetus is pushing down.

·         Mild stomach cramps that feel like menstruation.

·         Diarrhea.

·         Vaginal spotting or bleeding.

·         A trickle or gush of watery vaginal discharge.

·         Changes in vaginal discharge – a considerable increase in discharge, fluid-leaking, or bleeding.

The final months and weeks of pregnancy are crucial to the growth and development of the unborn child. The earlier a baby is born the more likely it is to encounter health complications such as the following:

·         Low birth weight.

·         Breathing problems.

·         Underdeveloped organs.

·         Vision difficulties.

·         Intellectual disabilities.

·         Cerebral palsy.

·         Hearing loss.

·         Feeding and digestive problems.

·         Death.

Preterm labor is the leading cause of infant death; most premature birth-related deaths occur in infants born before 32 weeks of pregnancy. Even babies born at 35 weeks may experience jaundice, breathing and respiratory difficulties, and a longer hospital stay. Surviving babies – known as preemies – may spend weeks receiving special care in a neonatal intensive care unit. Though there is no surefire way to determine whether a baby will be born prematurely before the fact, there are certain risk factors that may contribute to early labor, including:

·         Previous preterm labor.

·         Multiple pregnancy (twins, triplets, etc.)

·         Problems with the uterus, cervix, or placenta.

·         Smoking tobacco.

·         Drinking alcohol.

·         Using illegal drugs.

·         Genital tract infections among others.

·         High blood pressure, diabetes, clotting disorders, and other chronic conditions.

·         Being underweight/overweight before pregnancy.

·         Gaining too little/too much weight during pregnancy.

·         Stress.

·         Anemia.

·         Excessive polyhydramnios (amniotic fluid).

·         Preeclampsia and other pregnancy complications.

·         Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy.

·         A fetal birth defect.

·         Little to no prenatal care.

·         Less than 6 months have elapsed since the last pregnancy.

Sometimes early delivery is actually what’s best for mother and child. Conversely, other times premature labor cannot be stopped. Generally speaking, though, it is best to let the baby come in its own time. Medications and treatment are available to help pregnant women deliver at or near term.

Treatment for preterm labor

·         Cervical cerclage

Surgery to stitch the cervix closed with strong sutures, which are removed during week 37 when the baby is deemed full term – or earlier if necessary. Recommended for pregnant women under 24 weeks who have a history of premature birth, provide that an ultrasound shows the cervix opening or that cervical length is less than 25mm.

·         Corticosteroids

Potent steroids that can promote lung maturity between weeks 24-34. The baby’s lungs may be mature enough for steroid-free delivery after week 34.

·         Magnesium sulfate

It may decrease the risk of cerebral palsy for babies born before 32 weeks.

·         Tocolytics

Medications that temporarily stop contractions.


Treatment allows many pregnant women to deliver their babies timely and safely. Therefore, it is important to heed the early symptoms of preterm labor, in particular vaginal bleeding and abdominal cramps. After performing tests such including pelvic exam, ultrasound, uterine monitoring, and lab tests, a doctor will certainly provide a diagnosis of preterm labor if the patient’s cervix has started to soften, thin, and open before the 37th week mark. On the other hand, the physician may determine that it’s a false alarm – which is good news, so don’t let the possibility of false labor deter you from seeking medical attention.

Although any woman may experience premature labor, the risk can be lessened by doing or avoiding certain things that all mothers-to-be should do or avoid anyway in order to ensure their and their unborn child’s safety.

Preventing preterm labor

·         Quitting smoking, drinking, and using illegal drugs – at the very least for the duration of the pregnancy.

·         Getting regular prenatal care.

·         Eating a healthy diet that includes folic acid, calcium, iron, and prenatal vitamins.

·         Managing hypertension, diabetes, and other chronic conditions.

·         Using a progesterone medication if there is a history of premature birth.

These are illustrative suggestions. Talk to your doctor and follow his/her indications regarding diet, condition management, medications during pregnancy, as well as pregnancy spacing and assisted reproductive technology.

Related: Why take Folic Acid during Pregnancy?