Signs and symptoms of preterm labor

To download this health action sheet, enter your email in the box below. As thanks, we’ll send you our monthly March of Dimes newsletter with information about what we’re doing to give every baby a fighting chance.


  • 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?

Signs of a condition are things someone else can see or know about you, like you have a rash or you’re coughing. Symptoms are things you feel yourself that others can’t see, like having a sore throat or feeling dizzy.

If you have any of these signs or symptoms before 37 weeks of pregnancy, you may be having preterm labor:

  • 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 have even one sign or symptom of preterm labor, call your health care provider right away. If you have preterm labor, getting help quickly is the best thing you can do.

When you see your provider, he may do a pelvic exam or a transvaginal ultrasound to see if your cervix has started to thin out and open for labor. Your cervix is the opening to the uterus (womb) that sits at the top of the vagina (birth canal). A transvaginal ultrasound is done in the vagina instead of on the outside of your belly. Like a regular ultrasound, it uses sound waves and a computer to make a picture of your baby. If you’re having contractions, your provider monitors them to see how strong and far apart they are. You may get other tests to help your provider find out if you really are in labor.

If you’re having preterm labor, your provider may give you treatment to help stop it or to help improve your baby’s health before birth. Talk to your provider about which treatments may be right for you.

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. There are many risk factors for preterm labor, but these three 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 include smoking and not getting prenatal care. Learn about all the risk factors and talk to your provider about what you can do to help reduce your risk for preterm labor. 

Additional versions of this article are available in: Arabic, Chinese Simplified, Hindi, and Urdu
Translated documents are courtesy of the employees of CooperSurgical Inc.

See also: Signs and symptoms of preterm labor infographic

Last reviewed: August, 2017