Preterm Labor and Birth: Risks and Treatments

by Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D. Health Professional

Giving birth before your due date can pose risks to your baby in the immediate term and in later life. Though there are some things that may make preterm labor more likely, there are also treatments to help lessen the risks if preterm birth does occur. Identifying moms-to-be who are more at risk of preterm labor can help them prevent or delay preterm birth. Read on to get answers to nine common questions about preterm labor and birth, including information about risks and treatments.

Pregnant woman with doctor in hospital.

What is Preterm Labor?

Preterm labor is any labor that happens on its own prior to 37 weeks of pregnancy. This is slightly different than preterm birth, which is the birth of a baby prior to 37 weeks. While one may go into preterm labor, many times labor can be stopped, even if only for a little while, to give the baby more time to grow.

pregnant woman getting ultrasound

Why Do We Usually Try to Stop Preterm Labor?

Preterm birth poses many risks for your baby, including that the baby will die or be harmed permanently due to injuries or damage from being born too early. So if preterm labor can be delayed by even a few weeks, the outcomes for your baby are better. Common complications from preterm birth include vision problems, developmental delays, and cerebral palsy.

Premature baby in hospital.

What Is Extremely Preterm Birth?

Extremely preterm birth is when a baby is born prior to 28 weeks of gestation (or under 32, by some definitions). Nearly 100 percent of extremely preterm babies will require resuscitation to live. They will most likely spend 12 or more weeks in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Steroids do not stave off birth, but are given to mature the baby's lungs quicker if preterm birth is a possibility. Magnesium sulfate is used to help prevent preterm birth while giving steroids which also has the added benefit of maturing the brain.

Premature baby lays in an incubator in hospital doctor stands behind reaching in to help.

What Is Late and Moderately Preterm Birth?

Late and moderately preterm birth is when babies are born between 32 and 36 weeks gestation. These babies account for about 75 percent of all preterm births. While babies born in this timeframe are at less risk than the extremely preterm babies, they still have increased risk of breathing difficulties, have trouble staying warm, and generally require some care in the NICU. These preterm births are usually the result of a pregnancy with two or more babies, illness in the mother, and obstetrical intervention.

Pregnant woman smoking cigarette

Are Certain Women More Likely to Have Preterm Labor?

Some people are more likely to experience preterm labor than others, such as women who are diagnosed with various illnesses in pregnancy, including cervical insufficiency (when the cervix won’t stay closed). You are more likely to have preterm labor if you smoke, use certain drugs, or have certain infections. In some cases, massive amounts of stress may place you at a higher risk of preterm labor, as can having had a baby early in a previous pregnancy.

fraternal twin babies

What Should I Know If I’m Pregnant with More Twins or More?

Preterm labor can strike in any pregnancy, but it is more common in certain situations. For example, if you have multiple babies (i.e., twins or triplets), you are more likely to have them early, and the more babies you are carrying, the earlier they are likely to be born. Your health care team can help you monitor for preterm labor and perhaps delay it until it is safer for your babies to be born. Sixty percent of twins and 98 percent of triplets were born preterm or extremely preterm.

pregnant woman holding back

What Are the Warning Signs of Preterm Labor?

The good news is that there are warning signs of preterm labor that can help you know when to seek help. Signs include contractions that come every 10 minutes, or more frequently; low, dull backache; an increase in your vaginal discharge or mucus; your water breaks; cramping with or without diarrhea; or pelvic pressure.

pregnant woman dialing phone

What should I do if I have signs of preterm labor?

If you think you’re experiencing preterm labor, you should call your doctor or midwife immediately. While waiting to speak to them, drink water and lie down. Call again in a few minutes if your call has not been returned. If they are not responding, go to the nearest emergency room for assistance. There, they can help you identify if you’re in preterm labor and treat you if necessary.

Pregnant womans stomach hooked to EKG, to watch baby's heartbeat.

Can Preterm Labor Be Treated?

One thing that is done to help stop preterm labor is to ensure that you are well hydrated. Short-term and long-term medications may work to help stop contractions. Whether your labor can be stopped or even delayed will depend on the reason you are going into preterm labor. Some preterm labors will be managed in the hospital and sometimes you can be sent home on some medications. There are also some treatments to try to prevent preterm labor in high-risk moms.

Nurse listening to baby's heartbeat with stethoscope on pregnant womans belly.

The Bottom Line

Planning your pregnancy and getting regular prenatal care can help you lower the risk of preterm labor. Sometimes it is out of your control, like when you have multiples or certain risk factors. Your doctor, midwife, or other health care provider should help you learn how to identify it and seek treatment immediately to help delay the birth and decrease the risks to your baby. Remember, too, that technology has come a long way, and every year we learn more to help prevent these problems.

Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D.
Meet Our Writer
Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D.

Robin Elise Weiss, Ph.D., LCCE, CLC, AdvCD(DONA) is a childbirth educator, doula, founder of, and the award-winning pregnancy and parenting author of “The Complete Illustrated Guide to Pregnancy” and more than 10 other books. Between her nine children, teaching childbirth classes, and attending births for more than two decades, she has built up an impressive and practical knowledge base. You can follow Robin on Twitter @RobinPregnancy, Instagram @Robineliseweiss, and Facebook @childbirthtrainings.