Preterm labor describes the condition when a pregnant woman has regular contractions that open her cervix before week 37 of her pregnancy. If the baby is born before 37 weeks, the baby is considered premature.
Going into labor before week 37 doesn't necessarily mean you will have a preemie. There are various medical interventions that can stop or stall early labor. And some preterm deliveries are planned, in response to growth problems with the baby or health problems in the mother.
The March OF Dimes says about 12 percent of American babies are born early. There are several reasons for this. Many women are choosing to use fertility treatments, which often result in multiple births; multiples tend to be born early. Women are also getting pregnant later in life; the chance of conceiving multiples goes up as a woman gets older.
Preterm birth can result in serious health problems for babies. Preemies run the risk of breathing problems, brain hemorrhaging and infection. Because they often aren't heavy enough, they have problems keeping food down or maintaining their body temperature. Sometimes preemies have long-term health problems like cerebral palsy, vision and hearing impairments and developmental delays.
The vast majority of preterm babies are born between 34 and 37 weeks gestation. Most of these kids will do fine in the long term, even if they have to spend the first few days or weeks in the Neonatal Intensive Care (NICU).
If you go into active labor before 34 weeks, your doctor may order immediate intervention. You will be admitted to the hospital and the baby will be given steroids to speed lung development, while a medical team will try to delay your labor for a few days.
Pregnant women should call their doctor immediately (or just go to the maternity ward) if they notice any of the following symptoms before week 37:
* Change in vaginal discharge: if it increases in amount. If it turns watery, mucus-like or looks like bleeding
* Abdominal pain and cramping
* Pressure in the pelvis
* Dull lower back pain, especially if it recurs in a pattern
Often, labor can be confused with "false labor", or Braxton Hicks contractions, but many moms-to-be choose to err on the side of caution and call their doctor anyway. It is perfectly acceptable to let trained medical personnel evaluate your situation. No mother-to-be can "lose points" for more than one false alarm.