Preterm Labor: Care Instructions

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Preterm labor is the start of labor between 20 and 36 weeks of pregnancy. Most babies are born at 37 to 42 weeks of pregnancy. In labor, the uterus contracts to open the cervix. This is the first stage of childbirth. Preterm labor can be caused by a problem with the baby, the mother, or both. Often the cause is not known.

In some cases, doctors use medicines to try to delay labor until 34 or more weeks of pregnancy. By this time, a baby has grown enough so that problems are not likely. In some cases—such as with a serious infection—it is healthier for the baby to be born early. Your treatment will depend on how far along you are in your pregnancy and on your health and your baby's health.

Follow-up care is a key part of your treatment and safety. Be sure to make and go to all appointments, and call your doctor if you are having problems. It's also a good idea to know your test results and keep a list of the medicines you take.

How can you care for yourself at home?

  • If your doctor prescribed medicines, take them exactly as directed. Call your doctor if you think you are having a problem with your medicine.
  • Rest until your doctor advises you about activity.
  • Do not have sexual intercourse unless your doctor says it is safe.
  • Use sanitary pads if you have vaginal bleeding. Using pads makes it easier to monitor your bleeding.
  • Do not smoke or allow others to smoke around you. If you need help quitting, talk to your doctor about stop-smoking programs and medicines. These can increase your chances of quitting for good.

When should you call for help?

Call 911 anytime you think you may need emergency care. For example, call if:

  • You passed out (lost consciousness).
  • You have a seizure.
  • You have severe vaginal bleeding.
  • You have severe pain in your belly or pelvis that doesn't get better between contractions.
  • You have had fluid gushing or leaking from your vagina and you know or think the umbilical cord is bulging into your vagina. If this happens, immediately get down on your knees so your rear end (buttocks) is higher than your head. This will decrease the pressure on the cord until help arrives.

Call your doctor now or seek immediate medical care if:

  • You have signs of preeclampsia, such as:
    • Sudden swelling of your face, hands, or feet.
    • New vision problems (such as dimness, blurring, or seeing spots).
    • A severe headache.
  • You have any vaginal bleeding.
  • You have belly pain or cramping.
  • You have a fever.
  • You have had regular contractions (with or without pain) for an hour. This means that you have 6 or more within 1 hour after you change your position and drink fluids.
  • You have a sudden release of fluid from the vagina.
  • You have low back pain or pelvic pressure that does not go away.
  • You notice that your baby has stopped moving or is moving much less than normal.

Watch closely for changes in your health, and be sure to contact your doctor if you have any problems.

Where can you learn more?

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The Health Encyclopedia contains general health information. Not all treatments or services described are covered benefits for Kaiser Permanente members or offered as services by Kaiser Permanente. For a list of covered benefits, please refer to your Evidence of Coverage or Summary Plan Description. For recommended treatments, please consult with your health care provider.