Premature Labor

What is premature labor?

Premature labor is a medical term for a labor which comes before the 37th week of pregnancy and after the 20th week. Women who are pregnant with multiple babies at once (twins, triplets or more), who have pregnancy complications, or who drink alcohol or smoke during pregnancy are more likely to develop this condition. The symptoms of preterm labor may be mild at the beginning, with backache, cramping abdominal pain and a clear or blood-stained vaginal discharge. The diagnosis is usually easily made, especially if the cervix is open when seen during gynecological examination. Treatment involves giving medication to slow the labor, steroids to help the lungs of the baby develop and safe delivery of the baby. Babies who are born prematurely but in the later stages of the pregnancy can do well. Babies who are born very early may not be completely developed and have an increased risk of complication.


Premature labor occurs when a woman goes into labor before the 37th week of pregnancy. Pregnancy usually lasts for 37 to 41 weeks after conception. There are several factors that can increase the risk of a woman going into labor early. These include infections of the vagina or womb), extreme stress and injury to the cervix (the entrance to the womb). Women who are pregnant with multiple babies (twins, triplets or more), who have a high amount of amniotic fluid or who have a problem with the placenta are also at risk of going into labor early. Women who have other medical conditions, such as diabetes, or who drink alcohol, smoke cigarettes or use drugs during the pregnancy are also at increased risk of developing this condition.


The typical symptoms include a persistent backache, cramping abdominal pain and contractions of the uterus (womb). There may be a clear or blood-stained discharge from the vagina.


Diagnosis is usually made based on the symptoms and a physical examination. The physical examination will involve a gynecological exam to see if the cervix (the opening to the womb) has opened.


Treatment may involve delivering the baby, if it is safe to do so, or taking steps to prolong the pregnancy. Several medications can act to stop the onset of labor for several hours. Women who are at risk of going into labor before the 34th week of their pregnancy should receive steroid medication to help the develop the lungs of the unborn baby.


Testing for and treating infections can help to prevent some cases of premature birth. Giving up smoking and abstaining from alcohol during pregnancy may also be helpful.

Other names for premature labor

  • Premature birth
  • Premature newborn
  • Preterm birth