About Preterm Labor And Premature Birth

If you have a medical condition complicating pregnancy, you may be more likely to have an early labor and delivery. Early in pregnancy, health professionals try to identify women who are at risk for pre-term labor and delivery so they can be monitored more frequently for early signs of the problem.
Deborah M Bash

About preterm labor and premature birth
The usual length of a pregnancy is 38 to 40 weeks after the first day of the last menstrual period. Premature or pre-term labor is defined as labor occurring after 20 weeks, and before 37 completed weeks, of pregnancy. Although there is no firm data, estimates on the incidence of pre-term delivery suggest that 6 percent to 10 percent of all births in the United States occur between the 20th and the 37th week of pregnancy.

According to Robert K Creasy, MD, chairman of the department of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the University of Texas Science Center at Houston, prematurity accounts for over 50 percent of the neurologically handicapped children in this country and is the greatest single cause of newborn illness and death.

Who's at risk
Smoking, poor nutritional habits, drug and alcohol abuse, and other poor health practices during pregnancy also increase the risk of early delivery and birth of stillborn or sick infants.

Unfortunately, it is difficult to predict which women are at risk for pre-term labor. Since pre-term labor can occur in all age groups and within all social settings, researchers continue to explore what lifestyles and risk factors are common to women who experience pre-term labor.

Sometimes women mistake a certain type of contraction for labor. As early as six weeks into all pregnancies, the uterus, which is a large muscle, begins to contract rhythmically. These contractions (called Braxton Hicks contractions) are usually irregular and painless, and, because they usually do not cause the cervix to dilate, they do not threaten the pregnancy.

Braxton Hicks contractions that tend to increase in frequency and intensity toward the end of the pregnancy may be misinterpreted as contractions of labor and are sometimes referred to as "false labor" contractions. Women are not usually aware of cervical dilatation, the stretching and opening of the entrance to the uterus, and cervical dilatation can only be measured by a health practitioner during a pelvic examination.

What to Do
A pregnant woman experiencing contractions, either painful or painless, anytime during pregnancy, that occur more than four times an hour or are less than 15 minutes apart should report this activity to her physician or midwife, and be prepared to answer the following questions:

  • When did the discomfort start?
  • What is the type and frequency of the contractions?
  • What were you doing when the symptoms began?
  • Do you have any other signs or symptoms such as:
    • menstrual-like cramps that may come and go
    • abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea
    • backache that is dull and may radiate around toward the abdomen
    • vaginal discharge increase or a noticeable change in color
    • pelvic pressure that is constant or intermittent

What else you can do
While waiting for her provider to return her call, the woman should:

  • lie down with her feet elevated
  • drink two or three glasses of water or juice
These two activities sometimes cause contractions to subside. If symptoms do not lessen within one hour and the woman is not able to get in touch with her health-care provider, she should go to the nearest hospital for further evaluation.PregnancyAndBaby.com

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