Premature labor occurs when the cervix opens after regular contractions after the 20th week and before the 37th week of pregnancy.
Premature births can lead to premature births. The earlier the premature birth occurs, the greater the risk to your baby’s health. Many premature babies need special care in the neonatal intensive care unit. Premature babies can also have long-term mental and physical disabilities.
The specific cause of premature birth is often not clear. Certain risk factors can increase the risk of premature birth, but premature births can also occur in pregnant women with no known risk factors.
The signs and symptoms of premature birth include:
- Regular or frequent sensations of abdominal tightening (contractions)
- Constant pain in the lower and blunt back
- A feeling of lower pelvic or abdominal pressure
- Slight stomach cramps
- Vaginal patches or easy bleeding
- Premature diaphragm rupture – in a continuous gush or trickle of fluid after the diaphragm around the baby is broken or torn
- A change in the type of vaginal discharge – watery, slimy, or bloody
Premature labor can affect any pregnancy. However, many factors have been linked to an increased risk of premature birth, including:
- Previous premature or premature births, especially in the last pregnancy or in several previous pregnancies
- Pregnancy with twins, triplets, or other multiples
- Shortened cervix
- Problems with the uterus or placenta
- Smoke cigarettes or use illegal drugs
- Certain infections, particularly of the amniotic fluid and lower genital tract
- Certain chronic diseases such as high blood pressure, diabetes, autoimmune diseases, and depression
- Stressful life events like the death of a loved one
- Too much amniotic fluid (polyhydramnios)
- Vaginal bleeding during pregnancy
- Presence of a fetal congenital abnormality
You may not be able to prevent premature birth, but there is much you can do to promote a healthy full-time pregnancy. For example:
- Find regular prenatal care. Prenatal visits can help your doctor monitor you and your baby’s health. Mention any signs or symptoms that concern you. If you have had premature births in the past or have signs or symptoms of premature birth, you may need to see your doctor more often during pregnancy.
- Eat healthy. Healthy pregnancies are generally associated with good nutrition. In addition, some research suggests that a diet high in polyunsaturated fatty acids (PUFAs) is associated with a lower risk of premature birth. PUFAs are found in nuts, seeds, fish, and seed oils.
- Avoid dangerous substances. If you smoke, quit. Ask your doctor about a smoking cessation program. Illegal drugs are also banned.