Preterm Labor and Premature Birth Research

Health care providers consider labor to be preterm if it starts before 37 weeks of pregnancy. Because a fetus is not fully grown at 37 weeks, and it may not be able to survive outside the womb, health care providers will often take steps to stop labor if it starts before this time. Common methods for trying to stop labor include bed rest and medications that relax the muscles in the uterus involved with labor and delivery.

However, the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG) recently reported that many of the methods used to stop preterm labor are ineffective. The ACOG announcement confirms NICHD-supported research, which found that home uterine monitors were not effective for predicting or preventing preterm labor.

If efforts to stop labor fail, then the baby could be born prematurely. Premature infants face a number of health challenges, including low birth weight, breathing problems, and underdeveloped organs and organ systems. Many infants that are born prematurely need to stay in the hospital until their health is stable, sometimes several weeks or more.

NICHD Research on Preterm Labor and Premature Birth

Despite attempts to stop labor, many cases of preterm labor end in premature birth. Premature birth occurs in between 8 percent to 10 percent of all pregnancies in the United States; it remains one of the top causes of infant death in this country. Infants who survive being born prematurely are at increased risk for certain life-long health effects, such as cerebral palsy, blindness, lung diseases, learning disabilities, and developmental disabilities.