The NHS estimates that eight out of every 100 babies born in the UK are born prematurely. That means 8% of our children are born at or before the 37-week mark of a standard 40-week pregnancy. More often than not in such cases, mother and baby will undergo what may appear to be a normal labour and delivery that merely starts earlier than expected. Labour that occurs prior to 37 weeks is known as "preterm labour."
In most cases of preterm labour, the mother will experience common labour symptoms that include contractions, breaking of the waters, and the loss of the mucous plug that seals the cervix. Loss of the plug is also known as 'showing'. Any mother experiencing symptoms of labour before 37 weeks should contact a medical professional for advice as soon as possible once symptoms begin.
Be aware that experiencing labour symptoms prior to 37 weeks does not necessarily indicate there is a problem. The symptoms could simply be Braxton Hicks contractions. These are 'practice' contractions, if you will, that prepare a mother for the real thing when it eventually comes. Braxton Hicks contractions are more likely to occur the later one goes in pregnancy. A midwife or doctor should be able to tell fairly quickly whether a mother is experiencing Braxton Hicks or preterm labour.
A mother wants to know whether she is in labour regardless of when the symptoms begin appearing. So whether you are at 25, 37 or 40 weeks, look for the following symptoms:
Several of the symptoms occurring together are a strong indication that labour has begun. A mother who has not yet reached 37 weeks should pay close attention to the symptoms. They could be a warning to get to the hospital straight away.
Assuming a pre-term mother experiencing labour symptoms is not in the midst of Braxton Hicks, medical professionals will likely suggest specialised care. Premature babies require an extra measure of care not available at all hospitals or medical clinics. So if preterm labour has been diagnosed, mum will have to be admitted to a hospital with the proper facilities. These facilities are referred to as a neonatal unit.
Not all NHS hospitals have neonatal units on-site. What happens if that's the case at your local hospital? A mother experiencing preterm labour will be stabilised before being transferred to another facility where labour and delivery will be completed. If labour is far enough along that the baby is likely to be born before transfer, doctors at the hospital will deliver the baby and then transfer both mother and child to another hospital with a neonatal unit immediately thereafter.
Should a mother believe labour has started even though she is not yet reached the 37-week mark, she should immediately contact her doctor or midwife for further instructions. Whoever this contact is will probably ask questions about contractions, broken waters, and showing. Any likelihood that preterm labour has begun will result in immediate advice to head to a hospital.
The treating doctor at the hospital may recommend certain medications be given to stop contractions. Steroids might also be recommended if medical staff are concerned about complications resulting in an extremely premature birth. All of this must be determined on a case-by-case basis once the mother has arrived at the hospital.
If the doctor or midwife is not sure what a mother's symptoms indicate, other tests can be conducted at the hospital:
It is possible for preterm labour to be triggered by something affecting the mother, like an infection for example. That's why the above three tests might be necessary if medical officials don't know what is causing pre-term symptoms. Whether baby needs to be delivered or not will depend on how quickly labour symptoms are progressing, if they are progressing at all.
In cases where preterm labour concludes with the birth of a premature baby, the hospital's medical team will immediately spring into action. Baby will immediately be examined by specialists who know exactly what to look for in such cases. More often than not, premature babies need at least some specialised care in the hours and days following premature birth.
Babies born extremely prematurely will require intensive care that includes incubation and intravenous feeding. Obviously, the closer baby is to the 37-week mark at birth the less medical intervention will be necessary. But be prepared for the worst. There are times when even the best medical care is not enough to help a premature baby make it. There are times when there is just too much for baby to overcome.
Preterm labour is not the ideal situation for any mother or baby. But with the advances we have seen in medical science over last several decades, preterm labour is also not necessarily an unrecoverable situation. Babies born after 27 weeks enjoy an 80% survival rate in the UK, and most premature babies are born within this 10-week window. The chances of your baby surviving preterm labour and delivery are higher today than they have ever been in the past.