Signs of preterm labor

KEY POINTS

  • Preterm labor is labor that happens before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Babies born this early can have lifelong or life-threatening health problems.

  • Learn the signs and symptoms of preterm labor. If you have even one sign or symptom, call your health care provider.

  • If you’re having preterm labor, getting help quickly is the best thing to do.

What are the signs and symptoms of preterm labor?

If you have any of these signs or symptoms before 37 weeks of pregnancy, you may be having preterm labor. Call your health care provider right away if you have even one of these signs or symptoms:

  • Change in your vaginal discharge (watery, mucus or bloody) or more vaginal discharge than usual
  • Pressure in your pelvis or lower belly, like your baby is pushing down
  • Constant low, dull backache
  • Belly cramps with or without diarrhea
  • Regular or frequent contractions that make your belly tighten like a fist. The contractions may or may not be painful.
  • Your water breaks

What should you do if you think you're having preterm labor? 

If you think you’re having preterm labor, call your provider. Call even if you have just one sign or symptom. Your provider may tell you to:  

  • Come in to the office or go to the hospital for a checkup. 
  • Stop what you’re doing. 
  • Rest on your left side for 1 hour.
  • Drink 2 to 3 glasses of water or juice (not coffee or soda).

If the signs and symptoms get worse or don’t go away, call your provider again or go right to the hospital. If they get better, relax for the rest of the day. 

Are you at risk for preterm labor?

No one knows for sure what causes preterm labor. But there are things that may make you more likely than other women to start labor early. These are called risk factors. These three risk factors make you most likely to have preterm labor:

  1. You’ve had a premature birth in the past.  
  2. You’re pregnant with multiples (twins, triplets or more).   
  3. You have problems with your uterus or cervix now or you’ve had problems in the past.

Other risk factors, like smoking and not getting prenatal care, increase your chances of having preterm labor. Prenatal care is medical care you get during pregnancy. Learn about all the risk factors and talk to your provider about things you can do to help reduce your risk for preterm labor. 

Are there treatments that can help stop preterm labor?

Yes. There are several treatments, like progesterone and tocolytics, that may help slow or stop preterm labor. And there are treatments, like antenatal corticosteroids (also called ACS), that can help reduce your baby’s chances for having health problems (like lung problems) in case he’s born early. Talk to your provider to find out if treatments for preterm labor are right for you. 

Last reviewed: May, 2017