Labor that begins before week 37 is called "preterm" or "premature." About 1 out of every 10 babies born in the United States is preterm.
A preterm birth is one of the major reasons babies are born disabled or die. But good prenatal care improves the chances that a preterm baby will do well.
You need to see a doctor right away if you have:
Researchers don’t know what actually causes preterm labor in most women. However, we do know that certain conditions can increase the risk of preterm labor, including:
The mother's health problems or lifestyle choices that can lead to preterm labor include:
Problems with the placenta, uterus, or cervix that can lead to preterm labor include:
To reduce your risk of preterm labor, follow your doctor or midwife's advice. Call as soon as you can if you think you are having preterm labor. Early treatment is the best way to prevent preterm delivery.
Prenatal care lowers the risk of having your baby too early. See your doctor as soon as you think you're pregnant. You should also:
It is even better to start seeing your doctor or midwife if you are planning to have a baby but are not yet pregnant. Be as healthy as you can be before getting pregnant:
Women with a history of preterm delivery may need weekly injections of the hormone progesterone. Be sure to tell your doctor or midwife if you had a previous premature birth.
Call your doctor or midwife right away if you notice any of these signs before your 37th week of pregnancy:
Your doctor or midwife can do an exam to see if you are having preterm labor.
If you have preterm labor, you will need to be in the hospital. You may receive medications to stop your contractions and make your baby's lungs more mature.
Simhan HN, Iams JD, Romero R. Preterm labor. In: Gabbe SG, Niebyl JR, Simpson JL, et al, eds. Gabbe: Ostetrics: Normal and Problem Pregnancies. 6th ed. Philadelphia, PA: Saunders Elsevier; 2012:chap 28.
Updated by: Cynthia D. White, MD, Fellow American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, Group Health Cooperative, Bellevue, WA. Also reviewed by David Zieve, MD, MHA, Isla Ogilvie, PhD, and the A.D.A.M. Editorial team.
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