What Exactly Is Preterm Labor?

You've probably heard that as you near your due date, your uterus contracts occasionally as it grows, stretches, and "practices" for giving birth. These practice contractions are called Braxton-Hicks contractions, and they are perfectly normal.

However, about 10 percent of pregnant women will notice preterm labor contractions. Unlike Braxton-Hicks, preterm labor contractions are the real thing, indicating your labor is starting before your baby is ready to be born.

How can you tell whether you're experiencing Braxton-Hicks or preterm labor contractions? The differences are mostly in the frequency, intensity, and duration. Here's what to look for.

Braxton-Hicks Contractions

You may start to notice Braxton-Hicks contractions in your third trimester. They may feel like a generalized tightening of your uterus (almost as though it were balling up) or like your baby is doing a somersault. These contractions usually aren't painful and almost always stop after an hour or so. Although all women have Braxton-Hicks, not all women feel them, particularly if it's a first pregnancy.

Signs of Preterm Labor

Preterm labor contractions can occur anytime between the 20th and 37th week of pregnancy. They do not stop, and they may become more frequent, regular, and uncomfortable over time.

Other signs of preterm labor include:

  • Menstrual-like cramps above the pubic bone
  • Pressure or an achy feeling in the pelvis, thighs, or groin
  • A dull lower backache or back pressure
  • Intestinal cramping or diarrhea
  • Increased vaginal discharge
  • Watery fluid, pinkish or brownish discharge, or blood coming from the vagina

If you experience any of these signs of labor or more than four contractions in an hour, call your healthcare provider immediately. You may be asked to come in to be checked or to time your contractions. Your provider will tell you precisely what to do if this becomes necessary, but until then you could use our downloadable contraction tracker. You can feel the contractions (your uterus tightening and relaxing) by placing your fingertips lightly on your abdomen. Using a contractions tracker gives you an idea of how often your contractions are coming and how long each one lasts so that you can give this info to your healthcare provider.

How to Avoid Preterm Delivery

If you begin preterm labor, your provider will suggest ways to stop it. She may send you home for bed rest — lying in bed, usually on your left side to improve circulation to your uterus. You may also be asked to drink lots of fluids, which can inhibit the hormones that cause contractions. In addition, your provider may decide to prescribe medication to stop the contractions. Usually, a combination of these steps will halt preterm labor.

If the contractions continue, you may be admitted to the hospital to closely monitor your preterm labor signs.

How to Prevent Preterm Labor

You can take precautions throughout your pregnancy to help prevent the onset of preterm labor in the first place.

  • Drink eight ounces of water or juice every couple of hours to prevent dehydration, which can make your uterus more "irritable."
  • Eat a healthy diet.
  • Keep your bladder empty to decrease the chance of a urinary tract infection (UTI), which can increase the risk of preterm labor contractions.
  • After using the bathroom, always wipe from front to back to prevent a UTI.
  • Sit down with your legs elevated every hour or so.
  • Don't lift heavy objects.
  • Rest if you experience contractions that don't stop within a short time.
  • Try to decrease the amount of stress in your life.

The possibility of preterm labor is a little scary, but most women experience only Braxton-Hicks contractions. The best thing you can do is pay close attention to your uterine activity, take good care of yourself, and stay in contact with your provider should anything unusual develop.

If your labor does start a little earlier than you bargained for, you won't want to waste precious time packing, so always have your hospital bag packed and ready, just to be on the safe side.

How we wrote this article The information in this article is based on the expert advice found in trusted medical and government sources, such as the American Academy of Pediatrics and the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. You can find a full list of sources used for this article below. The content on this page should not replace professional medical advice. Always consult medical professionals for full diagnosis and treatment

Giving birthPreparing for childbirth

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