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Pregnancy and baby

Premature labour and birth

Signs of premature labour

About one baby in every 13 (8 out of 100) will be born prematurely  in other words, before the 37th week of pregnancy. In most cases labour starts by itself, and the signs will usually be the same as labour that starts at full term. These signs could be:

  • contractions
  • sudden breaking of the waters
  • a "show" (when the plug of mucus that has sealed the cervix during pregnancy comes away and out of the vagina)

Read more about the signs of labour and what happens in labour.  

Having your baby early

If your baby is likely to be delivered early, you will be admitted to a hospital with specialist facilities for premature babies. This is known as a neonatal unit. 

Find out about babies who need special intensive care.

Not all hospitals have facilities for the care of very premature babies, so it may be necessary to transfer you and your baby to another unit, ideally before delivery (if time permits) or immediately afterwards.

If contractions start prematurely, the doctors may be able to use drugs (tocolytics) to stop your contractions temporarily. This hopefully allows time for steroid injections to be given. Steroids will reduce the risk of the baby suffering from the complications of being born very early (particularly breathing difficulties and bleeding). They can take about 24 hours to work.

Many twins and triplets are born prematurely. The average delivery date for twins is 37 weeks and 33 weeks for triplets. Find out about giving birth to twins.

The Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists has useful information about what to expect in their leaflets, Premature labour and When your waters break early.

If you have any reason to think that your labour may be starting early, contact your hospital straight away.


Page last reviewed: 21/01/2015

Next review due: 30/10/2017


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