Learn the risk factors, warning signs, and treatment methods of premature labor.
premature baby in hospital
Credit: Steve Lovegrove/Shutterstock

The definition of a premature (also known as preterm) birth is when a baby is born before the 37th week of pregnancy. Premature birth and its complications are the largest contributors to infant death in the U.S. according to March of Dimes 2018 Premature Birth Report Card. Here are the facts:

  • 380,000 babies — 1 in 10 — are born early each year in the U.S.
  • The preterm birth rate worsened for the third year in a row in 2018
  • Preterm birth and low birth weight accounts for about 17% of infant deaths

Concerned that you might be at risk for a preterm birth? Read on to learn about the risk factors, warning signs, and what you should do if you suspect you're going into labor prematurely.

Preterm Birth Causes

Even if you do everything right during pregnancy, you can still give birth early, according to March of Dimes. The cause of preterm labor and premature birth is not always clear; sometimes labor starts on its own without warning.

Preterm Birth Risk Factors

  • Being an African American
  • Pregnant with multiples
  • Younger than 18 or older than 35
  • Previous preterm birth
  • Uterine or placental abnormalities
  • Underweight or overweight
  • Low weight gain during pregnancy
  • Smoker
  • Alcohol or drug user
  • Short intervals between pregnancies
  • One or more abortions
  • Medical problems, such as hypertension or diabetes
  • Untreated gum disease

Preterm Labor Signs and Symptoms

  • Blood or other fluid leaking from your vagina (call your health-care provider right away if you have this symptom)
  • Menstrual-like cramps, which may come and go
  • Low, dull backache
  • Pelvic pressure (may feel like the baby is pushing down)
  • Change in vaginal discharge
  • Abdominal cramps (with or without diarrhea)
  • Uterine contractions (coming every ten minutes or more often)

What to Do if You Suspect Preterm Labor

If you begin showing signs of preterm labor, here's what you should do:

  1. Lie down on your left side for one hour.
  2. Drink two or three glasses of water or juice.
  3. If the symptoms get worse or if they don't go away after one hour, call your health-care provider or go to the hospital. Getting help quickly is the best thing you can do.
  4. If the symptoms do go away within one hour, take it easy for the rest of the day. Do not do what you were doing when the symptoms began.
  5. If the symptoms come back, call your health-care provider or go to the hospital. 

American Baby