Signs of premature labour: Symptoms & Causes

You've probably heard that as you near your due date, your uterus contracts occasionally as it grows, stretches and 'practises' giving birth. These practice contractions are called Braxton-Hicks contractions and they are perfectly normal.

However, about 10 per cent of pregnant women experience premature labour contractions. Unlike Braxton-Hicks, premature labour contractions are the real thing. They indicate that your labour is starting before your baby is ready to be born.

How can you tell whether you're experiencing Braxton-Hicks or premature labour contractions? The differences are mostly in the frequency, intensity and duration. Here's what to look for:

Braxton-Hicks Contractions

You'll start to notice Braxton-Hicks contractions in your third trimester. They may feel like a generalised tightening of your uterus, almost as though it were balling up; or they may feel like the baby is doing a somersault. The contractions usually aren't painful and almost always stop after an hour or so. Although all women have Braxton-Hicks, not all women feel them, particularly with their first baby. So don't be alarmed if you never experience them.

Premature Labour Symptoms

Premature labour contractions can occur at any time between the 20th and 37th week of pregnancy. They do not stop, and they may become more frequent, regular and uncomfortable over time.

Premature labour signs to look for:

  • Menstrual-like cramps above the pubic bone

  • Pressure or an achy feeling in the pelvis, thighs or groin

  • Dull, low backache or back pressure

  • Intestinal cramping or diarrhoea

  • Increased vaginal discharge

  • Watery fluid, pinkish or brownish discharge, or blood coming from the vagina

If you experience any of these symptoms or more than four contractions in an hour, call your healthcare provider immediately. You may be asked to come in to be checked, or your provider may want you to time your contractions. You can feel the contractions (your uterus tightening and relaxing) by placing your fingertips lightly on your abdomen.

Stopping Premature Labour

If you begin premature labour, your healthcare provider will suggest ways to stop it, such as bed rest and drinking lots of fluids.

If the contractions continue, you may be admitted to hospital so your provider can monitor you more closely.

Preventing Premature Labour

You can also take precautions that may help prevent premature labour from starting in the first place.

  • Drink 250 ml of juice or water every couple of hours to prevent dehydration, which could make your uterus more 'irritable'.

  • Eat a healthy diet and gain between 11 to 16 kg (25 to 35 pounds) during your pregnancy

  • Always wipe from front to back after urinating or having a bowel movement, to prevent a UTI.

  • Sit down with your legs elevated every hour or so, and don't lift heavy objects.

  • Stop physical activity and rest if you experience contractions that don't stop within a short time.

  • Try to decrease the stress in your life.

The possibility of premature labour is scary, but most women only experience Braxton-Hicks contractions.

Take good care of yourself and be sure to contact your healthcare provider should anything unusual develop.

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