What happens during premature labour

Premature labour can progress very rapidly, especially when your waters have broken.

You may only have mild pains, or none at all, and then quite quickly be ready to deliver the baby. This can happen on the hospital ward.

You'll go to the labour ward to deliver if your labour cannot be delayed. Your doctors and midwives will tell you what is happening and keep you informed.

Options for premature labour

Your healthcare team will talk to you about your options.

These options depend on your situation and might include:

  • letting labour continue naturally
  • speeding up labour or birth by giving you medicine to induce the birth
  • performing a caesarean (C-section) - this option may be necessary if you or your baby is unwell
  • delaying the birth for another day or two
  • delaying the birth for as long as possible

Delaying the birth

If you're less than 34 weeks, you may be transferred to a maternity unit with special care facilities for premature babies. Depending on your situation you may be given medicine known as tocolytics to delay the birth.

Tocolytics can be given by a drip into your vein or by tablet. Like any medicine, they do not always work.

If the tocolytics delay the birth, you may be offered other treatment. This treatment often includes an injection of a steroid to help the baby's lungs. It can reduce the risk of breathing difficulties if your baby is born too early.

Slowing down labour or stopping the birth is not appropriate in all situations. Your midwife or doctor can discuss your situation with you.

They will consider:

  • how many weeks pregnant you are
  • if it might be safer for the baby to be born – for example, if you have an infection or you are bleeding
  • local neonatal (newborn) care facilities and if you might need to be moved to another hospital
  • your wishes

Magnesium sulphate

If you're in premature labour and are 24 to 32 weeks pregnant you should be offered magnesium sulphate. This can help protect your baby's brain development.

You may also be offered it if you're in labour and 30 to 33 weeks pregnant. This is to protect your baby against problems linked to being born too soon, such as cerebral palsy.

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This project has received funding from the Government of Ireland’s Sláintecare Integration Fund 2019 under Grant Agreement Number 123.

Page last reviewed: 4 December 2021
Next review due: 4 December 2024