Preterm birth is labor that begins before 37 weeks of gestation, when a baby is born too soon and their vital organs, including the lungs, brain, and heart, are still developing. It is important to understand the difference between preterm labor and premature birth, as well as the risk factors and treatments associated with each. Preterm labor is the process your body goes through to give birth to your baby before 37 weeks of pregnancy. It occurs when regular contractions cause the cervix to open after the 20th week and before the 37th week of pregnancy.
While preterm labor does not always lead to premature birth, it requires immediate medical attention. Certain risk factors may increase the chance of preterm delivery, such as preterm birth in the past, multiple pregnancy, smoking and substance abuse, and a short time (less than 18 months) between pregnancies. If you have a short cervix and have had a preterm birth before, you may also have a procedure called cerclage. Treatments to stop preterm labor include bed rest, intravenous fluids (in the vein), and medications to relax the uterus.
Magnesium sulfate may reduce the risk of cerebral palsy and problems with physical movement if given before preterm delivery. Other medications that help prepare the fetus for preterm birth include corticosteroids, magnesium sulfate, and tocolytics. Vaginal progesterone may also be given if you have not had a preterm birth before but you have a very short cervix at 24 weeks of pregnancy or earlier. It is difficult for health professionals to predict which women in preterm labor will have a preterm birth.
However, staying healthy during pregnancy and managing existing health conditions is the best way to prevent premature birth. If labor has progressed and cannot be stopped, your healthcare provider may need to remove the fetus prematurely. If you notice signs of preterm labor such as contractions, increased vaginal discharge, bleeding, or pelvic pain, contact your provider right away. Children who are born prematurely are also at greater risk for cerebral palsy, learning problems, and behavioral problems.