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Most pregnancies last 38 to 41 weeks. Preterm labor refers to contractions that begin to open the cervix before week 37.
No one knows exactly what causes preterm labor. It's a scary possibility, but that's not the end of the story. Taking good care of yourself can go a long way toward preventing preterm labor — and delivering a healthy, full term baby.
If preterm labor can't be stopped, your baby could be born too early. Survival is possible for babies born as early as 24 weeks, but these preemies may face a lifetime of health problems. Even preemies born later may face serious complications — including low birth weight, breathing and digestive difficulties, underdeveloped lungs, learning disabilities and developmental problems.
The most common risk factor for preterm labor is a previous preterm labor or preterm birth. Other risk factors may include:
But preterm labor can happen to anyone. In fact, only half the women who have preterm labor have a known risk factor.
There are no guarantees — but there's much you can do to help accomplish a full term, healthy pregnancy.
If you have a history of preterm birth or significant risk factors for preterm birth, your health care provider may suggest weekly shots of the hormone progesterone to help prevent preterm labor.
For some women, the clues of preterm labor are clear and easily recognizable. For others, the signs and symptoms are more subtle. Be on the lookout for:
If you're concerned about what you're feeling — especially if you have vaginal bleeding accompanied by abdominal cramps or pain — contact your health care provider. Don't worry about mistaking false labor for the real thing.
Can premature labor be stopped?
In some cases, drinking lots of fluids and lying down — usually on your left side to improve circulation to your uterus — can halt contractions. Sometimes bed rest is recommended, although bed rest isn't a proven remedy for preventing pregnancy complications or preterm birth.
If you're admitted to the hospital, you may be given fluids through an intravenous (IV) tube. Your health care provider may use a uterine monitor to measure your contractions and an ultrasound to evaluate your cervix. You may be given medication to stop the contractions.
--There is a test sometimes used, called a FETAL FIBRONECTIN TEST, or FFN test, which is a swab taken near the cervix. If it is negative, it is highly reassuring that the pregnancy will continue for the next 10-14 days. If positive, it is less predictive of the risk of preterm delivery. Many things, such as recent intercourse or even a vaginal exam done at the doctors office, can cause a false positive result. Many providers do not use the FFN test for this reason.
If you're between weeks 23 and 34, your health care provider may recommend two treatments. To temporarily stop labor, you may be given a medication such as magnesium sulfate or Terbutaline — either intravenously or by injection. To speed your baby's lung maturity, you'll get an injection of potent steroids. After week 34, steroids may not be needed because fetal lung development is more advanced.
Preterm labor won't affect your physical recovery from childbirth. However, the common stresses after delivery may be magnified by your baby's condition. Preemies often need intensive medical care after birth — sometimes requiring lengthy hospital stays. Surround yourself with supportive loved ones and friends. Accept their help in caring for your baby or older children.
After one preterm birth, you're at risk of a subsequent preterm birth. To boost the odds, work with your health care provider to manage any risk factors and respond to early warning signs.