Can preterm labor be stopped?

Preterm labor and preterm birth carry risks with them that can affect mom and baby. Prenatal care can help prevent preterm labor and birth, and can be important for detecting it early, and preterm babies are carefully cared for once they’re born.

But can preterm labor be kept from happening at all? Generally, the answer is no. There are times when preterm labor is impossible to avoid even for parents and healthcare providers who do everything right, and once preterm labor begins, it can sometimes be delayed, but can’t often be stopped entirely.

Before preterm labor begins

Progesterone

Progesterone is a highly important hormone during pregnancy, and women who are at risk for preterm labor and are carrying single babies may be treated with a synthetic form of it to prevent preterm labor.

Women with short cervixes may be prescribed progesterone that’s applied vaginally. Some research suggested that progesterone treatment was helpful for those with a history of prior preterm birth, and that getting weekly progesterone injections would lower the risk of preterm labor. However, the PROLONG study published in 2020 found that weekly progesterone injections did not have a significant benefit for those with a history of preterm birth. Because the evidence is mixed, if you have a history of preterm birth, talk through the possible benefits and risks of progesterone treatment with your healthcare provider.

Progesterone treatments are not safe for women who are at risk for preterm labor because they are pregnant with multiples.

Cervical cerclage

A cerclage, which is a stitch that’s put in the cervix to hold it closed, is a treatment that’s sometimes recommended to pregnant women who are diagnosed with cervical insufficiency, which can cause her cervix to shorten or thin too soon. Cervical cerclage generally stays in long enough to maintain the pregnancy until week 37 or 38, and then the stitch is removed, though it can be removed earlier if necessary.

After preterm labor has started

Once preterm labor has begun, it can’t be stopped for very long. When labor has begun, most healthcare providers assess whether they can delay labor long enough to deliver steroids to help the baby’s lungs and organs develop enough to be born, and to administer antibiotics to try to help both mother and baby avoid infection during birth.

Tocolytics

A category of medications that are used to delay preterm birth once labor has started for long enough to treat mother and baby for complications of preterm birth, and to move them to a facility that’s prepared for preterm birth complications and the health needs of a preterm baby.

Different tocolytics have different side-effects that affect different women differently, so if you need them, your healthcare provider will assess which one will work the best for you. Tocolytics generally can’t delay preterm labor for longer than two days.

Tocolytics can often, however, delay birth for long enough to get to a hospital that’s best prepared to deal with babies who are born preterm.

The truth is, the best way to avoid preterm labor is to stop it before it starts. If it does stop, though, doctors have strategies to help ensure that early labor is as safe as it can be for both mother and baby.


Sources
  • “Preterm Labor.” MayoClinic The Mayo Clinic. Dec 4 2014. Web.
  • “Treatments for preterm labor.” March of Dimes. The March of Dimes, July 2014. Web.
  • “Delaying a premature birth.” Tommy’s.Tommy’s, July 2014. Web.
  • “FAQ087: Preterm (premature) Labor and Birth. ACOG. The American College of Gynecologists and Obstetricians. September 2015. Web.
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