Premature birth

Anxious pregnant womanPremature labour is when you go into labour before 37 weeks. Around 10% of pregnancies in the UK end in premature labour.

Here, we explain some of the reasons your pregnancy might not go to full term.

Risk factors for premature birth

  • Pregnant with more than one baby
  • Previous premature birth
  • Abnormally shaped cervix or womb

Medical risk factors for premature birth

  • Pre-eclampsia
  • Diabetes
  • An infection, such as a bladder, urinary tract or kidney infection
  • Infection with a temperature higher than 101°F
  • Sexually transmitted infection, such as gonorrhoea
  • Previous cone biopsy of cervix
  • Late miscarriage during previous pregnancies
  • Under age of 17 or over 35
  • Severely underweight at start of pregnancy
  • Less than six to nine months between giving birth and getting pregnant again
  • Waters breaking early
  • Placenta partially or completely separating from womb (placental abruption)
  • Your baby has a medical condition that means it's safer for them to be born early

Lifestyle risk factors for premature birth

  • Using street drugs
  • Smoking and drinking
  • A job that involves strenuous work or standing for long periods of time
  • Domestic violence

But sometimes there's simply no explanation for why labour begins prematurely.

Warning signs of premature labour

  • Period-like cramps
  • Contractions
  • Watery fluid from vagina
  • Vaginal discharge that is different or more than usual
  • Stomach cramps, with or without diarrhoea
  • Pressure in your pelvis

What Mumsnetters say about the causes of premature birth

  • I had a cone biopsy for cervical cancer which has weakened my cervix - my son was born 3 months prematurely so the stitch will hopefully prevent the same thing happening in this pregnancy. Snowboarder
  • I had a premature birth at about 23/24 weeks after lifting a very heavy object (about 15-20kg). Labour started immediately and couldn't be stopped. Tulla
  • I have the dubious distinction of a very short cervix (19mm or so outside pregnancy) and was very lucky to have this picked up at the 23-week scan and monitored thereafter. I had DD at 27+5. Lizzytee
  • A friend had a urine infection at 28 weeks and that caused premature labour. ScaryLoujalou
  • I had my first daughter at 28 weeks and we are very lucky that she is showing no signs of delay in any areas. Chucklesjen
  • DS arrived at 35.5 weeks following spontaneous rupture of membranes. He was fine apart from jaundice and being slow to establish breastfeeding. SpangleMaker
  • My daughter was delivered at 27 weeks after I developed pre-eclampsia, she was a tiny scrap at 1lb 8oz, but doctors decided that it was too risky to do anything else. JessKM
  • In my case it was spontaneous labour, no real warning, no time for steroids (I was 9+cm by the time it was discovered I was in labour). HauntedLittleLunatic
  • Absolutely no idea why both my sons' births happened early. I don't smoke, didn't drink, ate well, took pregnancy vitamins and had no more stress than anyone else. Catrinm

If you're not sure whether or not you're in labour, then call your doctor or midwife. It could be a false alarm, it could be premature labour - either way, you and your baby need to be checked.

In around half of cases where women appear to be going into premature labour the symptoms stop and the pregnancy continues. But if this is it and your baby is about to be born, we've got information about premature babies and you can talk to other women who've been through the same experience on our Talk boards, at any time of the day or night. 

Image: Shutterstock

Last updated: 24-Jun-2013 at 3:47 PM