While there is no exact definition for preterm labor, there are some signs which are consistent when it is happening; uterine contractions, rupture of the membranes and cervical dilation (the opening of the cervix), all of which occurs before 37 weeks are completed in the pregnancy.
Contributing Factors to Preterm Labor
There are several factors which contribute to preterm labor, however, the primary factor in each case is the early rupture of the amniotic sac. Many other factors may come into play to facilitate a preterm labor including preeclampsia (toxemia or high blood pressure during pregnancy), illness such as heart or kidney disease, infections, drug use and a previous preterm birth. During the pregnancy there may be a decrease in the function or position of the placenta or it may be detached, there may be too much amniotic fluid or the amniotic sac may rupture. If the condition within the uterus is not healthy or if there is an incompatibility in the blood groups, or if it is a multiple pregnancy, there is increased risk of preterm labor.
Preterm Labor = Preterm Birth
Preterm labor means a preterm birth and those babies born preterm are often at increased risk for complications. A preterm baby is born before their bodies and organs have fully developed. They are often very small and have low birth weight, frequently needing help to breathe, eat, stay warm and fight infection. Babies born before 28 weeks are at the greatest risk since they may not be ready for life outside of the womb, too immature to function well.
The Plight of the Premature Baby
Preterm babies struggle to stay warm because of the lack of body fat. Since their lungs are usually under-developed, they often have difficulties breathing on their own, ending up with chronic lung disease and apnea. Their cardiovascular systems are incomplete as well and their blood pressure can be too low or too high. A low heart rate often goes hand in hand with apnea. Anemia, jaundice, glucose imbalances and inadequate kidney functions plague preterm babies as does poor digestion and serious intestinal and colon problems. Seizures, brain damage and infections are not uncommon in these little babies who are born preterm.
Prenatal Care Helps in Prevention
Because of the advances in care for preterm babies, more and more survive in spite of having been born early. The best way to address preterm labor and delivery is in prevention. Prenatal care is critical to preventing preterm births and low birth weight in babies. During prenatal visits both mother and baby are checked, positive changes to lifestyle are encouraged and if any problems are identified, they can be addressed early.
Preterm High Risk Women and Progesterone
Sometimes women who are at high risk for a preterm delivery are given hormones to help prevent an early labor. Progesterone, which is naturally produced by the placenta during pregnancy, is administered and has been shown to be effective in the prevention of preterm birth in some high risk pregnancies.