Preterm labor refers to the onset of regular contractions that lead to the dilation and effacement of the cervix before the 37th week of pregnancy. This may result in the birth of the baby before the full term, which is usually 40 weeks. Preterm labor can lead to preterm birth which might require additional care for the newborn due to potential health risks.

Key Takeaways

  1. Preterm labor refers to labor that starts before the 37th week of pregnancy. This is before the baby’s organs, such as the lungs and the brain, have had a chance to fully develop.
  2. The exact causes of preterm labor are often unknown, but some factors such as infections, certain conditions like preeclampsia, or certain lifestyle factors can increase the risk of experiencing preterm labor.
  3. Preterm labor doesn’t always result in preterm birth. Some preterm labors can be delayed or stopped with medical intervention, allowing the baby more time to develop in the womb. However, if birth can’t be delayed, a preterm birth could pose health risks to the baby.


The term “preterm labor” is significant in motherhood and prenatal health because it refers to a critical situation where labor happens prematurely, before the 37th week of pregnancy.

Preterm labor can result in the birth of a preterm or premature baby, who may face an array of health complications due to their underdeveloped organs.

Such complications could include breathing issues, digestive problems, and a higher susceptibility to infections among other risks.

Thus, understanding and preventing preterm labor becomes crucial in ensuring the health and wellbeing of both the mother and the baby.


Preterm labor serves as a critical marker in gestational health and reproductive science, indicating an unusually early start to the birthing process which can sometimes be associated with various complications. Its occurrence is typically prior to the 37th week of gestation — a full-term pregnancy usually occurs around the 40th week.

The identification of preterm labor allows healthcare professionals to take necessary actions to manage the associated risks, thereby optimizing both maternal and neonatal outcomes. It essentially serves as an imperative diagnostic tool that facilitates timely and lifesaving interventions.

The monitoring of preterm labor is crucial as it aids in forecasting neonatal well-being and is paramount in determining the course of the delivery process. The diagnosis can trigger immediate action plans like hospitalization for continuous monitoring, administration of medications to delay the onset of delivery, or interventions aimed at enhancing the unborn child’s health and survival chances.

It can also necessitate more regular check-ups and additional support even post-partum to manage potential health issues of the newborn. Despite its noteworthy setbacks, the recognition of preterm labor provides an essential opportunity to deliver the best available care to secure the health and future of both mother and child.

Examples of Preterm labor

Example One: A woman named Maria is 30 weeks pregnant with her first child. She started noticing regular contractions that were ten minutes apart and a pressure in her lower abdomen. As a soon-to-be first-time mother, she wasn’t sure if this was normal so decided to call her healthcare provider. With the symptoms she described, Maria was immediately instructed to come to the hospital. She was diagnosed with preterm labor, and her doctors managed to stop the labor with a combination of rest, medication, and close monitoring.

Example Two: Sarah, who is 31 weeks pregnant with twins, went for her routine check-up. During her ultrasound, her doctor saw that her cervix had started to shorten and dilate significantly. Even though she was not having contractions, the doctor diagnosed her with preterm labor due to her cervical changes. Sarah was given medications to help her babies’ lungs mature in case they were born prematurely.

Example Three: In her 32nd week of pregnancy, Jane woke up to lower back pain and noticed a watery discharge. She rushed to the hospital where she was diagnosed with preterm labor. Jane’s water had broken, she was having contractions, and she was showing signs of an infection. To ensure the safety of Jane and her baby, her doctor decided to induce labor and the baby was born prematurely but placed immediately in the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit for monitoring.

FAQs on Preterm Labor

What is preterm labor?

Preterm labor is when contractions begin to open your cervix before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Babies born prematurely are more likely to have health problems than babies born on time.

What are the signs and symptoms of preterm labor?

Signs of preterm labor include regular or frequent sensations of abdominal tightening (contractions), pressure in your pelvic area, lower back pain, menstrual-like cramps, and a change in type of vaginal discharge. These signs can be subtle and confusing so always contact your health provider if unsure.

What are the causes of preterm labor?

While the exact cause of preterm labor is often unknown, some risk factors can increase the chances, such as having a previous preterm birth, being pregnant with multiples, having an infection, and chronic conditions like high blood pressure and diabetes.

How is preterm labor diagnosed?

Several tests might be done to diagnose preterm labor including a pelvic exam to check the cervix for dilation or thinning, ultrasound, and fetal fibronectin test, which checks for a certain protein that might suggest preterm labor.

How can preterm labor be prevented?

There’s no sure way to prevent preterm labor, but certain measures can be taken to reduce the risk, like regular prenatal care, eating a healthy diet, avoiding risky substances, and managing chronic conditions.

What is the treatment for preterm labor?

Treatment for preterm labor depends on how far along in your pregnancy you are and what symptoms you have. This might include medications to delay labor or stimulate fetal lung maturity, bed rest and staying hydrated.

Related Motherhood Terms

  • Preterm birth
  • NICU (Neonatal Intensive Care Unit)
  • Braxton Hicks contractions
  • Cervical insufficiency
  • Prenatal care

Sources for More Information

  • World Health Organization (WHO): This is a trusted global health organization with reliable information on all health-related issues, including preterm labor.
  • Mayo Clinic: They are a non-profit organization committed to clinical practice, education and research, providing expert, whole-person care to everyone who needs healing.
  • American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG): This organization is a professional association of obstetricians and gynecologists in the United States, therefore offers comprehensive information about preterm labor.
  • March of Dimes: This organization works to improve the health of mothers and babies to prevent birth defects, premature birth and infant mortality, hence a reliable source on preterm labor.