Signs and symptoms of preterm labor

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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.

Download our English and Spanish health action sheets on preterm labor.

If you have any of these signs or symptoms before your 37th week of pregnancy, you may be experiencing 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 I do if I think I’m experiencing 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, they may do a pelvic exam or a transvaginal ultrasound to see if your cervix has started to become thinner 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 inside 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 will monitor them to see how strong and far apart they are. You may have other tests to help your provider determine whether 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 with your provider about which treatments may be right for you.

Additional versions of this article are available in: ArabicChinese SimplifiedHindi, and Urdu
Translated documents are courtesy of the employees of CooperSurgical Inc.

See also: Signs and symptoms of preterm labor infographic

Last reviewed: December 2020