Detecting Contractions in Early Labor

Early labor may not feel like labor at full-term. Get the scoop on the warning signs, so you can seek help if it starts for you.

pregnant woman looking at clock Ocean Photography/Veer

Labor is expected -- and welcomed -- when you're in week 40 of your pregnancy. But when it comes at 32, 30, or even 26 weeks? That's a scary proposition for you and your baby. "We consider labor preterm before the 36-week mark," says Bart Putterman, M.D., an ob-gyn at Texas Children's Pavilion for Women in Houston. "If [women are] having a lot of contractions over the course of several hours, we're going to have them come in to be evaluated."

Unfortunately, early labor may feel very different from full-term labor, so it may be tougher for you to recognize the signs. Find out when you should call the doctor -- STAT!

    Early Labor Warning Signs

    You're probably experiencing a whole range of new sensations throughout your pregnancy -- so how can you tell if it's just a stomach muscle cramping and stretching over your growing belly, or if it's your uterus contracting? Here are the most common warning signs that it's actually labor.

    • You feel a tightening in your belly at regular intervals. Anytime you're feeling something happening at what seems like regular intervals, time them. "The contractions may be painless, but they'll be predictable," says Siobhan Kubesh, a certified midwife with OBGYN North in Austin. "If they seem to be coming every 10 minutes or [more frequently], and you can predict when they'll start and stop, you need to call your health care provider."
    • You have some spotting. You may have some bleeding or discharge of bloody mucus if you're experiencing labor. "Any unexplained vaginal bleeding is a concern," Kubesh says. If the vaginal discharge changes, it's worth a quick call to your doctor.
    • Your water breaks. If you have a sudden gush of fluid -- an indication that your water broke -- you should call your doctor immediately.
    • You feel something weighty in your pelvis. "If there's a feeling of fullness in your vagina -- if it feels like the baby's head is in the vagina -- that's a symptom of preterm labor," Kubesh says.

      Early Labor Intervention

      In some cases, early labor can be treated to give your baby more time to grow. "The most common cause is dehydration or bladder infection, so rest and hydration can help it resolve on its own," Kubesh says.

      Pelvic rest -- which means no sex, no vaginal exams, and nothing put into your vagina -- is often a must if you're experiencing premature contractions. You may also be put on bed rest, at least temporarily, to avoid having gravity put pressure on your cervix. In some cases, your doctor may suggest sewing your cervix shut to help avoid a premature birth, or even resting with your head below the level of your body to further reduce stress on the cervix. "Bed rest is one of the few things that has been shown to help prevent preterm birth," Dr. Putterman says. "The medicines we have are somewhat effective for preterm contractions, but none of them work well to prevent preterm labor." In fact, according to Dr. Putterman, most studies suggest that the outcome is the same with or without medications -- and the medications themselves aren't completely harmless. "The medications can have dangerous side effects, especially when taken for an extended length of time," Dr. Putterman says. "We don't have a really good means for prolonging pregnancy, short of getting you off of your feet."

        Labor & Delivery: Preterm Labor

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