How to Recognize Preterm Labor

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If you are pregnant, it is important to recognize the signs and symptoms of preterm labor. If you know the symptoms, you can seek medical treatment that will hopefully prevent you from giving birth to your baby prematurely. Preterm labor occurs when you are between 20 and 37 weeks of pregnancy; any earlier than that, and it's considered a miscarriage.[1] It can be caused by any number of factors, some you have control over and some you don't. Regardless, it's best to learn how to recognize if you are experiencing preterm labor.

Knowing the Symptoms

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    Feel for contractions. A contraction will feel like a tightening of muscles in your abdominal area, especially near your baby. However, a contraction is not always a sign of preterm labor, as you can have false contractions called Braxton Hicks contractions.[2]
    • Braxton Hicks contractions are generally less severe than regular contractions. Though Braxton Hicks can be painful sometimes, actual contractions are usually accompanied by more pain and are more regularly spaced.[3] In fact, actual contractions will move closer together as time passes.[4]
    • If you're having more than eight contractions in an hour or more than four in 20 minutes, your contractions are likely not Braxton Hicks.[5]
    • If you are having contractions and are worried, don't be afraid to call your doctor. She'll be better able to determine whether you are having false contractions or regular contractions.[6]
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    Know the triggers of Braxton Hicks contractions. These false contractions can be triggered by a number of activities. If you or the baby has been moving around a lot, that can trigger them. You may also have a round of these contractions after sex or if you are especially dehydrated. Finally, a full bladder or even someone just touching your stomach can trigger these contractions.[7] Therefore, if your contractions are light and started after these activities, they could just be false contractions instead of preterm labor.
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    Help your Braxton Hicks contractions subside. If your contractions are Braxton Hicks, they will eventually subside. To hurry the process along, try changing how you're positioned. Lie down if you've been moving around, or do the opposite if you've been lying down.
    • You can also try drinking more fluids or getting extra rest to help alleviate these contractions over time.[8]
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    Notice pressure in your abdomen. If you start feeling pressure in your lower abdomen, that could be a sign of preterm labor. You may also feel pressure in your pelvic area. If you're not sure whether the pressure you're feeling is preterm labor, call your doctor to be sure.[9]
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    Pay attention to abdominal cramps. If you start feeling cramps, it may be a sign of preterm labor. Generally, these cramps will feel like you are on your period.[10] In addition, diarrhea may accompany your cramping.[11]
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    Look out for a backache. While a backache may just seem like an annoyance, it may also be a sign you're going into labor. In particular, backaches that are in your lower back could be a symptom, especially ones that don't go away. You'll feel a dull ache, not a sharp pain.[12]
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    Watch for new vaginal discharge or changes in your vaginal discharge. You may see some spotting or bleeding from your vagina. Spotting is light bleeding. Check your underwear for this symptom, though it may also show up when you are using the restroom.[13]
    • In a more severe case, your water may break. In that case, you should notice watery discharge from your vagina. It may gush all at once or be a slow leak.[14]
    • You should especially be looking for changes in your vaginal discharge.[15] Some discharge is normal during pregnancy. In your second trimester, you're likely to see white, thin discharge. This discharge is acidic in nature, as it tries to stave off bad bacteria and yeast in your vaginal area.[16] In your third trimester, you're likely to see heavier discharge near the end of the pregnancy.[17] If you've been having normal discharge, but it suddenly changes, call your doctor. Also, look for an increase in thickness or the amount of mucus.[18]

Lowering the Risk Factors

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    Lower your chance of vaginal infections. It's nearly impossible to completely protect yourself against infections. Nonetheless, vaginal infections can lead to early birth, so you should do what you can to prevent this issue.[19]
    • Stay clean by showering or bathing daily. However, skip beauty products that might irritate your vaginal area, such as bubble baths or feminine sprays. Also, skip douching.[20] Douching tends to change the levels of bacteria in your vaginal area, which can let the bad ones take over.[21]
    • Keep the area breathable. Skip clothing that is too tight, as that can make you hotter down there. Instead, wear breathable fabrics such as cotton, and keep it loose.[22]
    • Practice safe sex. If you or your partner is having sex with other people, use barriers when having sex. Researchers aren't clear why there is a connection between sex and infections; however, they are sure there is a connection. Also, practicing safe sex will protect you and the baby from sexually transmitted diseases.[23]
    • Skip tampons completely while pregnant. When using pads, use unscented ones without dyes.[24]
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    Gain the recommended weight. Women who don't gain the recommend weight during pregnancy are at a higher risk for early births. How much you should gain depends entirely on your weight before pregnancy, though doctors sometimes make recommendations based on your body mass index, a measurement of your height versus your weight.[25]
    • If you're underweight to begin with (with a BMI less than 18.5), you should gain 28 to 40 pounds. If you're of average weight (with a BMI of 18.5 to 24.9), you should gain 25 to 35 pounds. If you're in the overweight category (25 to 29.9), you can gain 15 to 25 pounds. Finally, if you're above a BMI of 30, you can gain 11 to 20 pounds.[26]
    • Nutrition is also important. Make sure you are eating a balanced diet that includes protein, fruits, vegetables, low-fat dairy, and whole grains. Ask your doctor for a more comprehensive list if you are unsure about what you should eat.[27]
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    Stop smoking. Smoking can increase the risk of your baby being born early. In addition, smoking may cause your baby to be underweight at birth because the chemicals from smoking may block some of the oxygen your baby needs. Secondhand smoking can be equally as harmful, so ask your partner to quit if he or she is the smoker.[28]
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    Stop drinking alcohol. Alcohol also increases your risk of having your baby early. Also, you up your chances of having a stillborn baby if you drink while pregnant. If you carry your baby to term, she may still have problems due to your alcohol use, such as fetal alcohol syndrome, which can cause deformities and disabilities in your baby.[29]
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    Avoid drug use. Abusing illegal drugs, such as cocaine, can lead to an early delivery. You should avoid illegal drugs anyway, because they can affect the health of your baby, and always talk to your doctor before starting on any medication, even over-the-counter medications or natural supplements.[30]
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    Avoid stress. Although you can't avoid stress altogether, you can skip situations where you know you will be stressed out. In addition, when you find yourself in a stressful situation you have no control over, learn to practice techniques to de-stress yourself.[31]
    • Try deep breathing. Close your eyes. Focus completely on your breathing. Take a deep breath in, counting to four. Breath out, counting to four. Keep focusing on your breathing until you feel yourself calm down.
    • Use visualization. With this technique, you take a journey with your senses. Imagine yourself some place you're happy and relaxed, such as the mountains. Think about the smell of the pines, the cool air on your skin, and the sounds of the birds. Imagine as many details as you can.[32]
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    Wait between pregnancies. Having pregnancies too close together can increase your chances of giving birth too early. Your body needs time to rest and recover. It's best to wait a year and a half after your last birth before trying to get pregnant again.[33]

Understanding Risk Factors Beyond Your Control

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    Know that pregnancy complications can increase your risk. For instance, preeclampsia can lead to preterm labor. Preeclampsia is extremely high blood pressure during your pregnancy.[34]
    • Other pregnancy complications include gestational diabetes and too much amniotic fluid.[35]
    • Problems with the placenta can also cause preterm labor,[36] such as placental abruption.[37]
    • Another issue could be if your uterus is not shaped normally.[38] Your doctor should be checking you for all these issues so that she will know if you are at risk.
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    Be aware that other diseases can put you at risk. If you have high blood pressure or diabetes before you get pregnant, you can also be at risk for a preterm labor.[39] Other chronic diseases can also cause issues, such as kidney or heart disease.[40]
    • Even something as small as gum disease can put you at risk for preterm labor. In fact, when you get pregnant, you have a higher chance of developing gum disease because of the hormones in your body.[41]
    • Pay extra attention to dental health while pregnant, by flossing, brushing, and using mouthwash twice a day at least.
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    Understand how your past pregnancies put you at risk. If you've had a preterm pregnancy in the past, you are more likely to have one in the future. Let your doctor know if about your pregnancy history so she can assess your risk.[42] Also, if your mother gave birth to you early, you may also give birth early.[43]
    • If you have a history of a preterm delivery, your doctor can talk to you about the medications available to help prevent this from happening again.
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    Be aware that trauma can lead to early birth. If you have severe injury or trauma, that can put you at risk for preterm labor. Obviously, you don't have control over events that cause trauma, such as car accidents, but try to not put yourself in dangerous situations while pregnant.[44]
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    Understand other factors affect your pregnancy. For instance, if you are having twins or triplets, you are more likely to give birth early. In addition, your age can affect your pregnancy. If you are an older mother, you may give birth earlier.[45]

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