Understanding Labor and Delivery Complications

What Are Common Labor and Delivery Complications?

A pregnancy that has gone smoothly can still have problems when it's time to deliver the baby. Your doctor and hospital are prepared to handle them. Here are some of the most common concerns:

Preterm labor and premature delivery

One of the greatest dangers babies face is being born too early, before their body is mature enough to survive outside the womb. The lungs, for example, may not be able to breathe air, or the baby's body may not generate enough heat to keep warm.

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A full-term pregnancy lasts about 40 weeks. Having labor contractions before 37 weeks of pregnancy is called preterm labor. Also, a baby born before 37 weeks is considered a premature baby who is at risk of complications of prematurity, such as immature lungs, respiratory distress, and digestive problems.

Drugs and other treatments can be used to stop preterm labor. If these treatments fail, intensive care can keep many premature babies alive.

The symptoms of preterm labor and birth include:

  • Contractions before 37 weeks of pregnancy, with a tightening and hardening of the uterine muscle, 10 minutes apart or less (these may be painless)
  • Cramps similar to menstrual cramps (not to be mistaken with Braxton Hicks contractions, which typically are not at regular intervals and do not open the cervix)
  • Low backache
  • A feeling of pelvic pressure
  • Abdominal cramps, gas, or diarrhea; in combination with contractions, may signal preterm labor
  • Vaginal spotting or bleeding
  • A change in quality or quantity of vaginal discharge, especially any gush or leak of fluid

Call you doctor if you notice or feel any of those symptoms.

Protracted labor

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Protracted labor refers to cervical dilation that is abnormally slow or to abnormally slow fetal descent. This means the labor does not progress as fast as it should.

This could happen with a big baby, a baby in a breech position (buttocks down), or other abnormal presentation, or with a uterus that does not contract strongly enough. Often, there is no specific cause for protracted labor.

Both the mother and the baby are at risk for several complications, including infections, if the amniotic sac has been ruptured for a long time and the birth doesn't follow.

How Do I Prevent Problems With Labor and Delivery?

The most important thing you can do to try to have a healthy baby is getting early and adequate prenatal care. The best prenatal care begins even before you are pregnant, so you can be in the best of health before pregnancy.

To help prevent complications, if you smoke, quit. Smoking can trigger preterm labor. Researchers have found a link between gum disease and preterm birth, so brush and floss your teeth daily. It may also be helpful to reduce your stress level by setting aside quiet time every day and asking for help when you need it.

Transvaginal ultrasound

Your doctor will check you for risk factors for preterm labor and premature delivery, and discuss any precautions you should take. Measuring the length of the cervix using a transvaginal ultrasound probe can help predict a woman's risk of delivering prematurely. This procedure is usually done in a doctor's office between 20 and 28 weeks of pregnancy for women who may be at risk.

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