Preterm Labor and Birth

Preterm Labor and Birth

Preterm birth is any birth that occurs before the 38th week of pregnancy. It is the cause of many infant deaths and lingering infant illnesses in the United States.

A Serious Pregnancy Complication

Every pregnant woman needs to know about preterm labor and birth—why it happens and what you can do to help prevent it.

Preterm birth occurs in about 12% of all pregnancies in the U.S., often for reasons that are not well understood. A normal pregnancy should last about 40 weeks. That amount of time gives the baby the best chance to be healthy.

A pregnancy that ends between 20 weeks and 38 weeks is considered preterm, and all preterm babies are at significant risk for health problems. The earlier the birth, the greater the risk.

You might have read in the newspapers about babies who are born really early and do very well. But it’s important for you to know that those babies are the exceptions. Babies who are born very preterm are at a very high risk for brain problems, breathing problems, digestive problems, and death in the first few days of life. Unfortunately, they also are at risk for problems later in their lives in the form of delayed development and learning problems in school. The effects of premature birth can be devastating throughout the child’s life.

The earlier in pregnancy a baby is born, the more health problems the baby is likely to have.

If you do have a preterm baby, Memorial provides neonatology care through Washington University Physicians in Illinois, Inc. at Memorial Family Care Birthing Center. Neonatologists have special training in the care of premature and fragile newborns.

What You Can Do

Call your healthcare provider or go to the hospital right away if you think you are having preterm labor. The signs of preterm labor may include:

  • Contractions (your abdomen tightens like a fist) every 10 minutes or more often
  • Change in vaginal discharge (leaking fluid or bleeding from your vagina)
  • Pelvic pressure—the feeling that your baby is pushing down
  • Low, dull backache
  • Cramps that feel like your period
  • Abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea
Source: March of Dimes (2008). Preterm Labor and Birth: A Serious Pregnancy Complication.