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Preterm Labor

Updated: Apr 25, 2021

Preterm labor is defined at labor occuring anytime between 20-36 w & 6 days gestation. It is not uncommon to confuse toning contractions also known as Braxton Hicks. Preterm also known as Premature labor occurs in about 12% of all pregnancies and is a major cause of neonatal morbidity and mortality around the world. Knowing the signs and symptoms of preterm labor as well as avoiding particular risk factors can help to reduce the chance of going into labor prematurely.

Preterm Labor vs. Toning Contractions

Toning contractions or Braxton Hicks happen often throughout the mother’s prenatal period. As the muscles of your uterus contract, the uterus will harden. Most mothers normally don’t feel any pain with these contractions and they will happen irregularly with no pattern.

Preterm labor contractions may feel similar to menstrual like cramps, women can experience a low backache, diarrhea, or the sensation of pelvic pressure. The contractions will also feel like they are getting stronger and can establish a pattern. Contact your midwife if you feel persistent uterine contractions 4 in 20 min or 8 in 60.

Potential Effects of Preterm Labor

Preterm labor can have a number of effects on both mother and baby that can have lifelong consequences. Women who have premature babies are more likely to deliver preterm babies in other pregnancies. Babies who are born preterm often need specialized care in the NICU at the hospital. Preterm babies are also at a higher risk of death as many of them have serious breathing problems and immature brain development. The Breathing problems can develop into asthma later in life as well as suffer other lifelong effects such as cerebral palsy, mental retardation, visual and hearing impairments, and have poor health or growth. A preterm baby are also more likely to develop chronic disease such as heart disease, hypertension and diabetes as adults.

Preventing Preterm Labor

There are many strategies used to prevent preterm birth. Life changes that can help is seeking proper prenatal care so that your healthcare provider can help you watch out for the signs and symptoms of labor, quit smoking, drinking alcohol, and use of illegal drugs as these increase your risk of preterm birth, getting support from friends or family members, reducing your stress and lastly reducing the amount of hours you work standing.

Recognizing the signs and symptoms of Preterm labor and notifying your healthcare provider can help to you to get the care that you need in a timely matter. The symptoms include:

  • Five or more uterine contractions in an hour

  • Leaking from your vagina (Water-breaking)

  • Menstrual-like cramps in your lower abdomen (These can come and go or be consistent.

  • Low backache (usually felt below the waistline)

  • Abdominal cramps

  • Diarrhea

  • Increased or change in your vaginal discharge

*If you feel you are in preterm labor do not hesitate to contact your healthcare provider at anytime of the day or night.

Want more information?



The Natural Pregnancy book by Aviva Jill Romm


American Pregnancy Association. (2017, March 11). Premature Labor. Retrieved from

Jordan, R.G., Engstrom, J.L., Marfell, J.A., Farley, C.L. (2014). Prenatal and postnatal care: A

woman-centered approach. Ames, IA: Wiley Blackwell.

King, T.L., Brucker, M.C., Kriebs, J.M., Fahey, J.O., Gegor, C.L., & Varney, H. (2013). Varney’s

midwifery (5th ed.). Burlington, MA: Jones & Bartlett Learning.

UK Healthcare. (2017, October). Short and Long-Term Effects of Preterm Birth. Retrieved from

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