The rate of preterm births in the U.S. continues to rise. A birth is considered preterm when an infant is born between week 20 and week 37 of a pregnancy, whereas a full-term birth occurs between week 37 and week 42.
One out of every 10 infants born here are affected by preterm birth, which can lead to higher rates of complications, disability and even death. Babies born full-term are more likely to be healthy than babies born early or late.
“Complications can arise with a preterm birth because important growth takes place in the final weeks of a pregnancy,” says Lisa Simpkins, a certified perinatal educator from Sharp Mary Birch Hospital for Women & Newborns. “This includes the full development of the brain, lungs and liver.”
According to Simpkins, the signs of preterm labor can be very different for each woman. However, if caught early, preterm labor can often be stopped.
Warning signs of preterm labor include the following:
- Uterine contractions
- Increase or change in vaginal discharge
- Flu-like symptoms or a feeling something is “not right”
Who is at risk for preterm labor
While all pregnant women can experience preterm labor, there are known factors that put some women at greater risk. These include pregnant women who:
- Are younger than 17 or older than 35
- Women with a history of preterm labor or preterm birth
- Those with chronic illness or increased stress
Other risk factors for preterm birth include:
- Premature rupture of membranes and amniotic sac
- Carrying twins or greater multiples
- Incompetent (weakened) cervix
- Abnormally shaped uterus
- Vaginal bleeding after 20 weeks
- Excess amniotic fluid
- Placental problems
- Bladder or vaginal infections
- Smoking or use of alcohol or drugs
“It is very important that women are aware of changes in their body during pregnancy,” says Simpkins. “Listen to your body and don’t ignore what you are feeling.”
What to do if you experience signs of preterm labor
If you experience contractions or are not feeling well, stop what you’re doing and urinate, drink 8 ounces or more of water or juice, and lie on your side for one hour. If the warning signs pass, rest and slowly resume your activities. Stay hydrated and remember to update your care team at your next visit.
If the warning signs have not decreased by the end of the hour, Simpkins advises calling your prenatal care team. However, if you notice loss of blood or watery fluid from your vagina, it is imperative that you seek emergency care immediately.
How to prevent preterm labor
There are ways to prevent preterm labor. From drinking plenty of water each day of your pregnancy to seeking prompt care for bladder infections and other illnesses, there are steps you can take to increase your chances of a full-term pregnancy and healthy infant.
General lifestyle changes can also make a positive difference. These include:
- Simplifying your life
- Incorporating prenatal exercise into your daily routine (talk to your doctor before participating in strenuous physical activity)
- Resting more often
- Lowering stress levels
- Not smoking or vaping, and not exposing yourself — and your fetus — to secondhand smoke
- Talking with your doctor about safe sexual activity during your pregnancy
- Not using alcohol, marijuana, drugs and over-the-counter medications not approved by your prenatal care team
Prenatal care can help prevent complications and ensure a healthy pregnancy. Talk to your doctor if you have any concerns about your pregnancy or notice signs of preterm labor.
Learn more about reducing your risk of preterm delivery, and register for the upcoming free Preventing Preterm Births class presented by Sharp HealthCare, the official health and wellness partner of the City of San Diego:
- Tuesday, June 18, 5 to 6:30 pm, at the Valencia Park/Malcolm X Library
For the news media: To talk with Simpkins for an upcoming story on preterm birth, contact Erica Carlson, senior public relations specialist, at email@example.com.