What is preterm labour?

Written by: Dr Vasso Terzidou
Edited by: Top Doctors®

Labour is considered to be premature if it starts more than three weeks before your due date. The body starts preparing at an earlier stage than was expected, which can result in early birth. Dr Vasso Terzidou, experienced consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist, talks us through preterm labour and what it means for the pregnancy.


Early labour and what it means

A birth before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy is categorised as preterm. Every year, thousands of babies are born prematurely in the UK. Preterm birth is currently the biggest cause of infant death, as premature babies are at a much higher risk of problems than babies who are carried full-term. However, doctors these days can help delay early delivery in many cases. If you experience preterm labour, it does not mean your baby will be premature. Many women go on to deliver at 37 weeks or later.

Risk factors of preterm labour

Many things can increase the risk of early labour. It is more likely if you have:


  • Previous history of preterm labour
  • Previous history of late miscarriage
  • Pregnancy with twins or triplets
  • Had previous treatment of your cervix for abnormal cells (CIN)
  • History of uterine anomalies (i.e bicornuate or septate uterus)
  • Had previous late surgical termination of pregnancy
  • Bleeding in the second trimester
  • History of smoking
  • Pre-existing medical conditions (such as cardiac disease, diabetes, high blood pressure)
  • Family history of preterm labour

Symptoms of preterm labour

In order to prevent preterm labour, it is important to be aware of the warning signs, so you can act quickly if you notice them. If you do, call your midwife or doctor immediately. Signs include menstrual-like cramping, an increase in vaginal discharge, vaginal bleeding, contractions which occur every 10 minutes, or more frequently, backache which cannot be helped by changing position, and flu-like symptoms (diarrhoea, vomiting, feeling sick).

A few of these symptoms are experienced in pregnancy, but when it comes to warning signs, it is important to be cautious. If you notice any of these symptoms, you should seek medical advice and get checked out.

Prevention and treatment of preterm labour

If your doctor finds that you have a significant risk of having your baby early, you may be advised to have scans to check the length of your cervix.

If your cervix is found to be short (below 25mm), you may be advised to take Progesterone (some studies suggest that it can reduce the risk of preterm delivery) or you may be advised to have a cervical cerclage. These are the most common treatments currently used to reduce the risk of preterm delivery.

If premature labour is diagnosed, you may be given medicine that can help to relax your uterus, thus stopping the labour, or medicine that can help with the development of your baby’s lungs to reduce the risk of breathing problems for your premature baby. You could be also given IV fluids, and it is also possible to be admitted to hospital.

If methods are unsuccessful to stop labour and it’s safer for your baby to be delivered instead of staying in a hostile in-utero environment (i.e infection or bleeding), the doctor and team will prepare to deliver your baby and the neonatologists (baby doctors) will be present to help and look after your baby.

What preterm labour means for the baby

Most premature babies do not experience too many problems, and catch up with children who were carried full-term in due course. Premature babies grow more slowly than full-term babies do. Most babies born after seven months are kept in intensive care for a little while, but if the baby is born earlier, risks of long-term health problems such as autism are much higher and they will receive specialised care.

It is therefore vital that if you detect any preterm labour symptoms, you visit the hospital or contact your doctor. They will be able to advise and arrange the care that you need.

By Dr Vasso Terzidou
Obstetrics & gynaecology

Dr Vasso Terzidou is an experienced consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist with over 20 years' experience, based in London at the Women's Wellness Centre and the Chelsea and Westminster Hospital. Her specialties include antenatal care, preterm labour, caesarean, cerivical cerclage, and natural birth.

She is a member of the High Risk Pregnancy Team at Chelsea and Westminster, where she also heads a specialised prematurity clinic providing support and highly-skilled obstetric monitoring for women at risk to deliver preterm, giving the highest level of care to ensure a positive experience for all expecting mothers. Dr Terzidou has an international reputation as a leading clinical academic, due to her scientific research and papers published in international journals. 

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