One of the most dangerous pregnancy complications is undoubtedly preterm labor. Also known as premature birth or preterm birth, preterm labor usually affects the baby more than the mother. Any pregnant woman should learn as much as possible about preterm labor along with the relevant symptoms so that she can rush to a doctor on experiencing them. Preterm labor is one of those pregnancy complications that you should devotedly try to prevent.
What is Preterm Labor?
A normal pregnancy lasts for about 40 weeks, perhaps more, varying from woman to woman. This is when a baby is fully developed and able to survive outside the womb. All of its organs are completely formed and functioning so it should have no problems when it is born. Some babies are born before the full 40 weeks are up, sometimes between 37 and 39 weeks. This too is OK, although your baby may have to be kept in intensive care for a few days to ensure that it is absolutely healthy before it is ready to go home with you. Babies born at or after 37 weeks usually do turn out all right. It is the babies born before this time that have the problems.
If you go into labor between 20 and 37 weeks of pregnancy, it will be called preterm labor. Your baby’s body is not prepared to withstand the rigors of life outside the womb as yet. It will not even be able to sustain life. Preterm labor is one of the primary causes of infant death, and it contributes to a majority of birth defects and health problems in newborns if the babies do happen to survive.
The earlier a baby is born, the lower its chances of survival. Even if the baby does survive, it will have to remain in the hospital for as long as necessary before its health is stable. Preterm labor has been known to cause several other physical and mental problems throughout infancy and childhood, which we will discuss next.
Complications of Preterm Labor
Preterm labor leads to several heart-breaking complications for your baby. This is why a preterm labor baby will generally be kept in the hospital for weeks after birth for observation and round the clock medical attention.
- Your baby will put on weight rapidly only during the last few weeks of pregnancy. The baby needs the extra fat and weight to protect itself for the first few months of its life. Babies born preterm usually have a low birth weight, which leaves the baby vulnerable to a host of related complications.
- Preterm labor means that your baby’s lungs have not had enough time to develop. This could lead to breathing difficulties or problems not just in infancy but throughout childhood as well.
- In fact, most of your baby’s organs need the full nine months to develop to satisfaction and to function properly. Preterm labor cruelly snatches the extra time needed, thus leaving some of your baby’s organs underdeveloped and leading to very risky, sometimes fatal, health problems.
- Babies born prematurely are at higher risk for infections.
- Blindness and deafness have been known to affect babies born of preterm labor.
- Preterm labor can cause your baby to have cerebral palsy.
- Learning disabilities or delays in development are common complications of preterm labor.
- Brain hemorrhage in your baby is another scary risk of preterm labor.
Causes of Preterm Labor
The reasons for preterm labor are not very clear. But researchers have identified that it could be just one or a combination of the following, although they have not understood the connection yet.
- Smoking can cause preterm labor.
- Preterm labor can also be caused by doing drugs.
- Not surprisingly, stress has been known to cause women to go into preterm labor. Overworking, tension at home, hearing bad news can all cause preterm labor if the stress that arises from such situations is not managed or is simply too much to take.
- Women who are ill during pregnancy or who were unwell for long periods before getting pregnant are prone to preterm labor.
- Infection seems to be a pretty common cause for preterm labor. Even an ordinary infection that does not cause you any harm before you got pregnant can wreak havoc during pregnancy.
- Placental pregnancy complications like placenta previa and placental abruption can cause preterm labor. Since the placenta is a crucial organ, any problems with it can lead to several pregnancy complications.
- Having cervical insufficiency or an incompetent cervix is known to cause preterm labor.
- Preterm labor can be caused by polyhydramnios or having too much amniotic fluid.
- Undergoing any kind of abdominal surgery during pregnancy can lead to preterm labor.
- Physical trauma to the abdomen – as would be the case in case of a car accident or a bad fall – can also cause a woman to go into preterm labor.
Risk Factors of Preterm Labor
Some women are more prone to preterm labor than others because of age, lifestyle, habits, and health. Keep in mind though that there are several women who do not have any risk factor at all and still go into preterm labor.
- Having other pregnancy complications can increase your risk of preterm labor.
- Women below 17 or above 35 years of age are more prone to preterm labor.
- Carrying multiple foetuses does increase your risk for preterm labor.
- If you had bacterial vaginosis or any other such infection during pregnancy, you are at higher risk of preterm labor.
- Anorexic or underweight women tend to be at higher risk of preterm labor than their healthy weight counterparts.
- Women with diabetes or high blood pressure are at an increased risk of preterm labor.
- Since smoking and drugs are one of the causes of preterm labor, you are obviously at higher risk if you smoke, or abuse drugs and alcohol. Even an extremely unhealthy lifestyle can lead to preterm labor.
- If you suffer from anemia during your pregnancy, you are at risk for preterm labor if it is not treated or managed properly.
- If you experienced bleeding at any time during your pregnancy, you may be at higher risk for preterm labor. This is because bleeding during pregnancy is actually a sign of several other quite serious pregnancy complications which lead to preterm labor.
- If you have insufficient pre-natal care, you could be at greater risk for preterm labor.
- Preterm labor in prior pregnancies can increase your risk for preterm labor in all future pregnancies.
- A short interval between pregnancies (between six and nine months) puts you at high risk of preterm labor.
- Birth defects in your baby may increase your risk of preterm labor.
- For reasons unknown, pregnancy with a single baby via in vitro fertilization seems to put women at a slightly higher risk of preterm labor.
- Other risks factors of preterm labor include exposure to the drug DES, as well as environmental pollution or radiation.
Symptoms of Preterm Labor
If you understand and catch the symptoms of preterm labor early on, you can take steps to postpone birth for a few weeks so that your baby has a greater chance of surviving.
- If you have vaginal bleeding or spotting during pregnancy, it is very possible that you are going into preterm labor.
- There may be a difference in your vaginal discharge.
- Your water may break when you go into preterm labor. Clear fluid will gush out of your vagina, indicating that the amniotic sac which protects your baby has broken.
- You may experience a dull pain in your lower back.
- You will also feel an intense pelvic pressure as the baby pushes into your cervix.
- Contractions are generally a sign of preterm labor. You may experience them in rapid progression, about 5 or 6 in just one hour.
- Pain during urination may indicate that you are going into preterm labor.
- Diarrhea sometimes accompanies the other symptoms of preterm labor.
- You may have some period-like cramping.
Treatment for Preterm Labor
There is no surefire treatment as such for preterm labor. The solutions for managing preterm labor will depend on how far along you are in your pregnancy, whether any other pregnancy complications exist, and your personal medical history.
Your doctor will first suggest that you drink some water to improve hydration. You will be asked to lay on your left side to improve blood circulation to the uterus. If this does not stop the contractions, medication like magnesium sulfate will be administered via an IV. You will be given a shot of steroids to speed up the development of your baby’s lungs. Eventually, if none of this works doctors will make preparations to deliver the baby. Special medical help will be on hand to take over care for your baby once it is born. While your recovery from preterm labor will be just like with normal labor, your baby may have to stay in the hospital for a few days or a few months, depending on how early in the pregnancy it was born and the sorts of health complications it has.
Prevention of Preterm Labor
Some cases of preterm labor cannot be prevented. But there are some cases where preterm labor has been stalled even though the mother experienced contractions.
- Remain hydrated. Drink as much water as is comfortably possible. Studies have uncovered that preterm labor is more common in the summer months. The reason this may happen is that dehydration reduces the volume of blood; this increases the concentration of the hormone oxytocin which is responsible for uterine contractions. So by drinking more water, you are ensuring normal blood volumes and so may be able to prevent preterm labor.
- If you are at high risk of preterm labor, you may have to resign your self to bed-rest for the duration of your pregnancy. If you are at particularly high risk, you may be hospitalized while you are pregnant. You will be asked to sleep on your left side more than your right.
- But just because you are in bed does not mean you are resting. You have to learn to truly relax, mentally. If you are a high-strung person or simply worry about thing all the time, learn to manage your stress better. Undertake activities that calm you – talk to a friend, watch a movie, take a warm bath. Make sure that you don’t let those tough days get to you.
- Some studies suggest that certain types of progesterone might be able to reduce the risk of preterm labor. So this may be administered as well. You may also be given additional medication to relax the uterine muscles so as to prevent contractions and thus preterm labor.
- Do your best to prevent infections during pregnancy. Limit yourself to one sexual partner or practice extra-safe sex to prevent sexually transmitted diseases. Do not douche or use a tampon. Practice good hygiene, and eat nutrient rich foods that will strengthen your immune system and effectively fight off infection-causing bacteria and other germs. Do not forget to practice good oral hygiene as well. There is strong evidence to support the claim that dental problems may be associated with preterm labor.
- You may be required to refrain from sexual activity to prevent the onset of contractions. Confirm with your doctor if sex during pregnancy is all right, especially if you are at high risk of going into preterm labor.
- If you are suffering from any chronic illness, do your best to manage it during pregnancy. In fact, put off pregnancy if possible until you have been cured of your illness or until such a time that it is more under control.
- Quit smoking, drinking and drugs – not just the illicit ones either; some harmless ever-the-counter drugs can affect you in different ways during pregnancy. Always consult with a doctor before popping a pill.
- A healthier diet may be necessary if you are at risk for preterm labor. Talk to your doctor or a qualified nutritionist about whether any changes are needed.
- Stick to your doctor’s appointments. There is no substitute for regular prenatal care to catch and prevent preterm labor.