Early labor, sometimes called preterm labor, occurs when your baby is born too soon. This is different than the early labor phase of a normal full-term birth process. A full-term birth happens between 39 and 41 weeks. Early labor is broken down into two categories. An early-term birth occurs if the birth occurs between 37 and 39 weeks, and any birth before this is called a preterm birth.
The earlier a baby is born before 39 weeks, the greater the risk for long-term health complications. Learn more about the risks of early labor and how you can prevent and treat its occurrence.
The symptoms of an early labor are similar to normal labor symptoms. The key difference is that these symptoms might arise much earlier in pregnancy than expected.
Some of the most common symptoms of early labor include:
- contractions that start off mild but then increase in frequency and severity
- lower back pain
- general discomfort, even while lying down
- water breakage, also known as the rupture of the amniotic sac
- pelvic pressure
- cramps that feel like menstrual pain
- vaginal bleeding
Unless early labor is medically induced for health reasons, there’s no one single known cause for unplanned early labor. Infections and swelling, or inflammation, are thought to be possible contributing factors. However, early labor is usually spontaneous and unexpected.
It’s estimated that one in 10 births are premature. This doesn’t include births that occur between 37 and 39 weeks. Age is one major contributing factor for early labor. Females who are younger than 17 years old or older than 35 years old are at an increased risk of early labor.
If you’ve had a preterm birth or experienced early labor with another pregnancy, your risks of another early labor are greater. Multiple gestations, or being pregnant with one or more fetuses, may also contribute. Doctors monitor such situations with extra care.
Other possible risk factors for early labor include:
- having a history of problems with the cervix and uterus
- having high blood pressure, or hypertension
- having issues with blood clotting
- having diabetes, including gestational diabetes
- abnormalities in the baby
- in vitro fertilization
- having a shortened cervix
- being underweight
- being obese
- standing for excessive amounts of time during pregnancy, such as while at work
- having an unhealthy lifestyle, such as having a poor diet, smoking, or not getting enough exercise
- abusing alcohol
- abusing drugs
- not getting timely prenatal care
Managing these conditions before or during pregnancy, if possible, can decrease the risk of early labor.
When it comes to early labor, a quick diagnosis is important to help prevent birth from occurring too soon. Your doctor will first perform a physical exam. Some of the most common signs of early birth can include:
- a thinning or dilating cervix
- rupture of the vaginal membranes
- rapid contractions, as recorded electronically
- increased secretions of a protein called fetal fibronectin
Depending on how soon early labor begins in your pregnancy, your doctor may order an ultrasound to get a better view of your uterus and to assess your baby’s condition.
In some cases, early labor cannot be prevented and birth occurs before full-term development. This can result in:
- low birth weight
- underdevelopment of organs
- developmental problems
- respiratory issues
- feeding difficulties
Since the exact cause of early labor isn’t known, there are few treatments available. The primary goal of treatment is to stop early labor from progressing further. This helps to protect the health of you and your baby. Your doctor might prescribe progesterone treatments as a preventive measure. In the case of cervical problems, your doctor might perform a type of surgery at the hospital called a cerclage. This is when the cervix is sewn shut during pregnancy to help prevent birth from occurring too early.
For preterm labor, your doctor might prescribe antibiotics for infections, corticosteroids to improve your baby’s lung development, or tocolytics to slow down contractions.
Going into early labor doesn’t necessarily mean that you’ll deliver a preterm baby. It’s estimated that half of women who experience early labor symptoms are able to deliver their babies at the 37-week mark or later. This is because of early detection and prevention efforts. Treatment and early intervention can greatly improve the outlook for a healthy baby.
The sooner you report possible symptoms of early labor to your doctor, the better the chances that early labor may be stopped. This is especially important if your pregnancy hasn’t yet reached 37 weeks.
Proper prenatal care can also go a long way in preventing early labor. Women who don’t have access to timely or quality care during pregnancy are more likely to experience complications.