Risk factors, warning signs and common complications

April 24, 2006

Women might be at greater risk of going into premature labor if they:

  • Had a previous preterm labor.

  • Are pregnant with twins or more.

  • Have certain uterine or cervical abnormalities.

  • Had late or no prenatal care.

  • Smoke.

  • Drink alcohol.

  • Use illegal drugs.

  • Have been exposed to the medication DES.

  • Have been a victim of domestic violence, including physical, sexual or emotional abuse.

  • Lack social support.

  • Are under stress.

  • Work long hours with long periods of standing.

  • Have diabetes or high blood pressure.

  • Have clotting disorders.

  • Had in vitro fertilization.

  • Were underweight before becoming pregnant.

  • Are obese.

  • Have urinary tract infections, vaginal infections, sexually transmitted infections and possibly other infections.

  • Bled from the vagina during pregnancy.

  • Are carrying a baby with certain birth defects.

  • Had a baby within six to nine months of the start of the next pregnancy.

  • Are black.

  • Are younger than 17 or older than 35.

  • Are poor.

If one or more of these factors can be used to describe a pregnant woman, it does not mean that woman will give birth prematurely, but she is more likely to than other women.


Warning signs and symptoms of preterm labor:

  • Contractions every 10 minutes or more often.

  • Change in vaginal discharge (leaking fluid or bleeding from the vagina.)

  • Pelvic pressure. (The feeling the baby is pushing down.)

  • Low, dull backache.

  • Cramps that feel like a period.

  • Abdominal cramps with or without diarrhea.

A woman who has even one sign of premature labor should call her doctor, nurse or midwife immediately or go to the hospital.

  • Common complications a premature baby can face:

  • Respiratory distress syndrome. Baby probably needs help breathing with oxygen and sometimes a respirator.

  • Intraventricular hemorrhage, aka bleeding in the brain.

  • Necrotizing enterocolitis, an inflammation that damages the intestine.

  • Retinopathy of prematurity can result in vision loss or blindness.

  • Chronic lung disease, aka bronchopulmonary dysplasia. Could develop a disease resembling asthma.

  • Higher risk for infections.

  • Anemia.

  • Patent ductus arteriosus, a large blood vessel which typically closes at birth so blood can circulate normally doesn't close.

  • Apnea, when a baby stops breathing for 20 seconds or more.

For more information about what these are and about preventing premature labor, visit the March of Dimes' Web site at

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