If labor begins before the 37th week of gestation, it is called preterm labor and may include one or more of the following: uterine contractions, rupture of the membranes (amniotic sac), and/or cervical dilation (the cervix opens). More than 11 percent of all babies born are born preterm.
Factors Which May Cause Preterm Labor
Many factors contribute to preterm labor. In many cases, the exact cause of preterm labor is unknown. However, one major cause that is known is the premature rupture of the membranes (breaking of the amniotic sac). Additional factors related to the mother include preeclampsia, chronic illness-such as kidney disease, infection either in the mother's body or in the fetal placental tissues, drug abuse and use of illegal drugs such as cocaine, weak cervix, or previous preterm labor.
Factors that may result in preterm labor as a result of the pregnancy itself are placental malfunction, placenta previa or placenta abruption, hydramnios (too much amniotic fluid) and premature rupture of the membranes. Sometimes fetal behaviour can indicate the environment within the uterus is not healthy, which may trigger an early labor. Multiple gestation (twins, triplets) and incompatibility of the blood, as is the case in Rh factor situations, also contribute to preterm labor.
Preterm Labor = Premature Birth
The most obvious risk with preterm labor is preterm birth. When babies are born before 37 weeks, they are at increased risk for many complications. Their tiny bodies and organ systems have not completely matured. They are small with low birth weight of less than 5.5 pounds, and may require help in eating, breathing, staying warm and fighting infection. Very premature babies (those born before 28 weeks) are at high risk and are especially vulnerable. Many of their organs may be unstable and not ready for life outside of the uterus, and they may be too immature to function well.
Respiratory difficulties like hyaline membrane disease and respiratory distress syndrome, when the air sacs cannot stay open due to lack of surfactant in the lungs, chronic lung disease caused by injury to the lung tissue and incomplete lung development are additional complications for preterm babies. They easily suffer with apnea (stop breathing) and air leakage into other places outside of the lungs.
Heart conditions, anemia, jaundice, immature kidney function, and gastrointestinal difficulties can plague a preterm baby. Necrotizing enterocolitis (NEC) is a serious disease of the intestine common in premature babies. Neurologic problems such as bleeding in the brain, softening of the tissues of the brain causing fluid retention in the brain, poor muscle tone, seizures, and infection are more risks.
Being Aware Of The Signs
The symptoms of preterm labor include uterine contractions, especially when they occur at a rate of four or five per hour, abdominal cramping and pelvic pressure, backache and vaginal discharge of blood or mucus. Should any of these symptoms be present, call a physician immediately for an accurate diagnosis. The doctor will use an electronic monitor and examination in hospital to record the fetal heart rate and monitor contractions. If it is possible to slow things down, the appropriate action will be taken and include bed rest and/or hospitalization.