Preterm labor, also called premature labor, is defined as having contractions and beginning true labor after 20-weeks of pregnancy and more than three weeks shy of your due date. This is not to be confused with Braxton Hicks contractions, which are sporadic and do not lead to real labor. Preterm labor can result in a premature baby, although modern medicine has become more adept at keeping the baby in utero as long as possible, allowing more time for it to grow and develop. While preterm labor isn’t always predictable, there are circumstances that can contribute to your baby being born prematurely.
5 Common Causes of Preterm Labor
1. Multiples. Women who are pregnant with more than one baby usually go into labor well before their due date. In most cases, you will be put on some form of bed rest between 20 and 30 weeks, depending on your situation. This is to reduce the chances of complications, and to help the babies remain in-utero as long as possible for maximum development.
2. Infections. Certain infections, such as bacterial vaginosis and urinary tract infections, can cause the uterus to begin contracting as well as pre-term premature rupture of membranes (ppROM). Gum disease has also been associated with preterm labor, which is why it is recommended you visit your dentist early in your pregnancy to check up on the health of your teeth and gums.
3. Uterine and cervical issues. Some women have weaker uterine and/or cervical tissues, which are unable to hold the baby after it reaches a certain weight. Sometimes this issue can be remedied using a cervical cerclage and/or bed rest. Fibroid tumors or an abnormally shaped uterus can also cause premature labor.
4. Placenta abruption. This is a serious condition where the placenta begins to detach from the uterine wall. It can have serious ramifications for both the mother and the baby as it can cause sever hemorrhaging, in addition to a premature baby.
5. Drug use. Cocaine and methamphetamine use can cause premature labor.
How Can I Tell if I am Having Preterm Labor Contractions?
It can be especially difficult for women who are pregnant for the first time to determine the difference between Braxton Hicks contractions, which can commence early on in the pregnancy, and real labor contractions. In most cases, Braxton Hicks contractions are not associated with pain or discomfort, will rarely occur more than four times in a single hour, and do not increase in frequency or duration. Also, they are not accompanied by any other signs of labor. Simply relaxing or lying down will often stop Braxton Hicks. However, you should always contact your OB/GYN if you are not sure. We would much rather be safe than sorry. Pre-term labor contractions will increase in frequency and duration, every 10-minutes or more often. They may also be accompanied by other signs of labor, including:
• Menstrual cramps or gas pains, without gas or diarrhea
• Vaginal bleeding
• Increased vaginal discharge
• Leaking of fluid from the vagina
• Tightening of the lower abdominal muscles and lower back
• Lower back pain
• Nausea, vomiting, and/or diarrhea
If you experience any of the above symptoms, and fear you may be starting premature labor, call your OB/GYN immediately. The sooner you can be examined, the better your chances are of protecting yourself and the baby if it is the real thing. Treatment for premature labor may include:
• Intravenous (IV) fluids
• Medicine to accelerate your baby’s lung development
• Medicine to relax the uterus and potentially stop labor
• Bed rest
• Hospital admission
If your preterm labor is unable to be stopped, the hospital may need to deliver your baby. Hopefully, it is a false alarm and you can return home and wait for the real thing!