Everything about preterm labour: Reasons, signs and how to handle it

Preterm labour can occur due to various reasons but there are some symptoms that you need to be aware of. A gynaecologist speaks about how to handle it.
labour pain
Your water break may happen before labour pain. Image Courtesy: Shutterstock
Dr Madhuri Burande Laha Updated: 30 Oct 2023, 03:51 pm IST
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Preterm labour is labour that tends to happen before 37 weeks of one’s pregnancy. Did you know that babies who are born early can encounter life-threatening health issues? Hence, it is essential to identify the signs and symptoms of preterm labour and consult a doctor immediately.

Most of the pregnancies last till 37 weeks. But, sometimes the baby may arrive sooner than you expect. Preterm or premature labour may occur after the 24th week of your pregnancy. Hence, it is when one’s body starts getting ready for birth too early during pregnancy. Premature labour leads to early birth, and there are several factors that can cause preterm labour.

Here we list out a few reasons behind the occurrence of preterm labour:

1. Infections: Infections that occur in the genital tract like bacterial vaginosis and sexually transmitted diseases (STDs) like trichomoniasis accompanied by infections in the uterus can result in preterm birth. These infections can lead to inflammation and this can cause the release of prostaglandins, the substance that initiates labour when you’re full-term. Even urinary tract infections (UTIs), when left untreated, can produce the same effect.

2. Smoking: We already know that cigarette smoking is injurious to health. But, many tend to ignore this reality and may face consequences. Smoking, alcohol consumption, or even drug use can be harmful to you and even your baby’s health. It also increases the risk of preterm birth and even low birth weight. It is the need of the hour to quit smoking cigarettes by opting for a smoking cessation therapy.

preterm labour
Preterm labor can result in premature birth. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

3. A very short time duration between two consecutive pregnancies: If you get pregnant for the second time within 18 months of giving birth to your first child, the risk of preterm labour increases. You will have to wait for at least 24 months before giving birth to your second child and this will help you take your pregnancy to full-term which is till 37 weeks. 

4. Various conditions during pregnancy: One may experience pregnancy complications such as gestational diabetes (diagnosed during pregnancy), preeclampsia (a sudden rise in blood pressure), and placenta problems that can lead to one going into preterm labour.

If you have given preterm birth previously then there are higher chances of it occurring again during subsequent pregnancies.

Being overweight or underweight before pregnancy, having twins or multiples, lack of good prenatal care, being pregnant with a baby having birth defects, or having a history of premature labour are some of the other factors that can lead to preterm labour.

You may be at the risk of premature labour if you spot symptoms such as:
  • Watery or bloody vaginal discharge
  • A nagging headache
  • Cramping
  • Back pain
  • Pressure in the pelvis and vagina
  • Nausea
  • Vomiting
  • Diarrhoea
  • Vaginal bleeding and frequent contractions which may or may not be painful

You will have to opt for a pelvic exam or a transvaginal ultrasound in order to know if your cervix has opened for labour.

preterm labour
Being overweight or underweight before pregnancy also causes premature labor. Image courtesy: Shutterstock

It may not be possible to stop preterm labour in every case once it sets in. Avoid urinary and other infections by drinking a lot of water and taking care of vaginal hygiene. If you notice any white, smelly discharge from the vagina, tell your doctor immediately. A doctor will treat it if it is an infection (sometimes, it may be non-infectious and natural discharge).

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If you spot any signs or symptoms of infection, immediately report to the hospital or doctor. Medically high-risk cases like severe PIH, preeclampsia or eclampsia GDM, IUGR, twin or multiple pregnancies and a history of preterm labour may lead to preterm labour or the doctor may have to deliver patients preterm due to it being in the best interest of the mother and the child.

Try to prevent these complications. If these complications do arise, your doctor will correct them as soon as possible to prevent premature labour. The treatment includes uterine relaxant (tocolytics), antibiotics, IV liquids, and bed rest.

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About the Author

Dr Madhuri Burande Laha is a consultant obstetrician & gynaecologist at Motherhood Hospital, Kharadi (Pune). ...Read More

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