Having a full-term pregnancy is best for your baby's health. Full-term pregnancies usually last about 40 weeks.

When a baby is born earlier than 37 weeks, it's called a preterm or premature birth. Babies who are born early can have health problems that may last their whole lives.

Can Early Labor Be Prevented?

Some women are more likely to go into labor early. Those with a short or weak cervix (the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina) or who have had a premature baby before are more likely to go into labor early. In these cases, the doctor may recommend treatments such as:

  • Progesterone: This hormone can be given as a shot or put into the vagina. It can help lower the chances of going into labor early for women who have had a premature baby before or who have a short cervix.
  • Cerclage: In this procedure, stitches close a woman's cervix to help prevent preterm birth. Doctors may recommend cerclage for women who have had premature babies or miscarriages, who have a short cervix, or who have a cervix that begins to open (dilate) too early.

Women who are having twins also are more likely to go into labor early. These treatments can't prevent early labor if you're carrying more than one baby.

What if Labor Starts Early?

Moms who think they're in labor or are having contractions (belly pains or cramps) should call their doctor or midwife right away. If there's any bleeding or your water breaks (which can be an on-and-off leak, a steady leak, or a gush of fluid), it's important to get to a hospital right away.

If labor starts early, it's best to go to a hospital that has a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU). Hospitals with a NICU specialize in treating preterm babies. Care for a woman in preterm labor can include:

  • Antibiotics: These can treat or prevent infections in the baby and the mother.
  • Steroids: These drugs can help speed up a baby's lung growth and decrease the chances of breathing problems if the baby is born too soon.
  • Medicine to slow or stop labor contractions temporarily: Delaying labor even a day or two can be enough time for steroids to help a baby's lungs develop. It also gives hospital staff time to get the mother to a hospital with a NICU, if needed.

Doctors won't try to stop contractions if the baby is more than 34 weeks and the lungs are developed, or if there are worries about the mother's or baby's health.

What Can I Do?

Preterm birth can't always be prevented. But moms-to-be can help lower their chances of going into labor too soon. Here's the best advice:

  • See your doctor early and regularly in your pregnancy for prenatal care.
  • Take care of any health problems, like diabetes, high blood pressure, or depression.
  • Don't smoke, drink, or use illegal drugs.
  • Eat a diet that includes a variety of healthy foods.
  • Gain a healthy amount of weight (not too much or too little).
  • Protect yourself from infections (wash your hands well and often; don't eat raw meat, fish, or unpasteurized cheese; use condoms when having sex; don't change cat litter).
  • Reduce stress in your life.

If you're pregnant or planning to become pregnant, meet with your doctor. Women who get regular prenatal care are more likely to have a healthier pregnancy and baby.

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Note: All information is for educational purposes only. For specific medical advice, diagnoses, and treatment, consult your doctor. © 1995-2021 KidsHealth®. All rights reserved. Images provided by The Nemours Foundation, iStock, Getty Images, Veer, Shutterstock, and Clipart.com.