Any sign of labor seen before 37 completed weeks of pregnancy is called preterm labor. Contractions of the womb (pain lower abdomen) and the opening of the neck of the womb are signs of impending delivery. The risks mainly lie for the premature baby who may not yet be prepared for a life outside the mother's womb. The extent of the risk depends on how early preterm labor sets in.
Preterm labor, like many things in obstetrics, is generally unpredictable. However in certain subsets of women the risk is high - women experiencing preterm labor in earlier pregnancies, those with over distended wombs, infections in the birth passage and poor holding capacity of the neck of the womb.
Labor pains are classically described as being rhythmic and usually start in the lower back. They gradually increase in intensity, frequency and duration.
At early stages of labor especially when the pregnancy is less than 34 weeks, medicines are administered to arrest the delivery process. In pregnancies which are greater than nine months in duration or when labor is in an advanced stage - delivery is allowed. Care needs to be taken of the newborn and intensive care treatment for preterm babies is often required. Difficulty in breathing, inability to feed initially and bleeding from the gut and brain are problems encountered in babies born too early. How the baby fares depends on how early the delivery has taken place and the efficiency of the baby care unit in the hospital.
Though cesarean section is often employed for delivering preterm babies, there is a lack of definite benefit in the practice.