Woman standing at the sink in pain

What to do if you think you’re going into preterm labor

Preterm labor is when a pregnant individual goes into labor before 37 weeks pregnant. A baby’s final weeks of growth and development are important, so if you think you’re going into preterm labor, you should call your healthcare provider right away. But for many individuals it can be hard to know if what you’re experiencing is preterm labor or something else, like ‘false’ labor. So just how can you know for sure?

Signs and symptoms of preterm labor can include:

  • Change in vaginal discharge — watery discharge, blood, or mucus
  • Increase in vaginal discharge — including ruptured membranes or ‘water breaking’ — which could be either a trickle or a gush
  • Cramps — may feel like menstrual cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Dull lower backache
  • Pressure in the lower belly — abdomen or pelvis
  • Uterine tightening or contractions — could be frequent, regular, and/or painless

If you experience any of these things before 37 weeks — including contractions — it might mean you’re going into preterm labor. But you can also have contractions when experiencing ‘false’ labor, often called Braxton Hicks contractions. These ‘false’ labor contractions can begin in the second trimester and become more noticeable in the third trimester.

So how can you tell Braxton Hicks contractions apart from contractions that might be a sign of preterm or ‘true’ labor? Braxton Hicks contractions are irregular, change with movement (they might stop when you rest, move, or change position), are weak or start strong then get weaker, and usually only include pain or discomfort in the front.

These specifics may be able to help you distinguish between the two types of contractions, but because experiencing contractions of any sort might be new to you, don’t hesitate to contact your healthcare provider if you have questions about whether or not you’re experiencing preterm labor — they’re there to help.

So if you’re experiencing any of the above signs or symptoms or preterm labor — or even if you just have questions about what’s normal — be in touch with your healthcare provider right away for guidance.

Your healthcare provider may need to see you to be sure of whether or not you’re going into preterm labor — they might monitor your contractions, perform a pelvic exam, or perform other tests. This will help them better understand the kind of care and treatment you need to keep you and your baby healthy.

Learn more about preterm labor

  • “FAQ004: How to Tell When Labor Begins” American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, May 2011. Retrieved December 9 2019. https://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/How-to-Tell-When-Labor-Begins.
  • “FAQ087: Preterm Labor and Birth.” American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists, January 2019. Retrieved December 9 2019. https://www.acog.org/Patients/FAQs/Preterm-Labor-and-Birth.
  • “Premature Birth.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, October 17 2019. December 9 2019. https://www.cdc.gov/reproductivehealth/features/premature-birth/.
  • “Preterm Labor.” Stanford Children’s Health. Stanford Children’s Health. Retrieved December 9 2019. https://www.stanfordchildrens.org/en/topic/default?id=preterm-labor-90-P02497.

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