With an ever-growing belly and endless questions from friends, family, and the occasional random passersby about when you’re going to pop, you might wish that your due date would hurry up and happen already. While the thought of meeting your baby as soon as possible is enticing, it’s important that your body stays right on schedule.
If you’re experiencing steady, painful contractions more than three weeks before your due date, you may be going into premature, or preterm, labor. It’s important to recognize the signs of premature labor in order to ensure the safety of you and your baby.
Am I at risk for a preterm labor?
Preterm labor can occur in any pregnancy, although certain factors may increase the chance of a preterm labor including:
- Lack of prenatal care during pregnancy
- Smoking or drinking alcohol during pregnancy
- Occurrence of preterm labor in an earlier pregnancy
- Multiple fetuses in the uterus, such as twins or triplets
- High blood pressure
- Chronic illnesses, such as diabetes
Contact your doctor if you’re concerned that you might be at a higher risk for preterm labor. Discuss a plan to follow if you find that you’re having early contractions.
Preterm labor signs
If you are experiencing true premature labor, contractions will feel like a steadily stronger hardening and softening of your abdomen. You may have experienced slight contractions during your pregnancy, which are known as Braxton-Hicks contractions. Braxton-Hicks contractions are irregular, generally painless, and will probably go away when you change positions or walk.
Not sure if it might just be the baby giving a really hard kick? If you’re still uncertain, here are additional indicators of preterm labor:
- Excessive mucous or bloody vaginal discharge
- Spotting or bleeding after the three-month mark
- Pain similar to menstrual cramps around the lower back and abdomen
- Vomiting, nausea, or diarrhea
- More than four uterine contractions per hour
Yep, I’m definitely in labor. What now?
If you feel that you are experiencing a true preterm labor, it’s time to contact your physician and head to the hospital. While there, the following tests may happen:
- A pelvic exam to determine whether your cervix has thinned and dilated
- Fetal monitoring to track the health of your baby
- Uterine activity monitoring to keep watch on your contractions
You may have to stay in the hospital if you are experiencing preterm labor. If the doctors are able to stop labor for the moment, you may be put on bed rest and given a fluid IV and medications to relax the uterus.
With some pregnancies, or as a result of medical conditions such as preeclampsia, the baby is delivered prematurely. A delivery anytime earlier than 37 weeks gestation is considered a premature birth, which occurs in about 12 percent of pregnancies in the U.S. A premature baby has a higher risk for health complications caused by underdeveloped organs or low birth weight, and he may require special care in the hospital’s neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). If your hospital does not have a NICU, you may be transferred to one that is better equipped to care for premature infants with serious health problems. That said, going into preterm labor doesn’t guarantee that your baby will have health problems, so relax and remember: You’ve got a blessing on the way, and you will learn how to comfort and support your child through every stage of development.