About Preterm Birth

Preterm is defined as babies born before 37 weeks of the pregnancy.1

  • It is estimated that approximately 60,000 babies are born prematurely in the UK every year2
  • This means that 1 in every 13 babies born in the UK will be born premature2

In the UK 140,000 women exhibit signs and symptoms of preterm labour per year but less than 5% go on to deliver within 14 days.3

Preterm labour usually starts by itself. The reasons why labour starts early are often unknown, although there is a greater chance of this happening for women who have had a preterm baby or a late miscarriage before.4 Around 25% of preterm births are planned because of maternal factors such as pre‑eclampsia, or fetal factors such as extreme growth restriction. But most preterm births occur because labour starts early naturally.5

  • Learn to recognise the symptoms of preterm labour


    The signs of premature labour can be similar to the signs of labour that starts at full term, and may include:6

    • Contractions
    • Period-type pains
    • A ‘show’ (when the plug of mucus that has sealed the cervix during pregnancy comes away and out of the vagina)
    • Breaking of the waters (rupture of membranes) – this can be a gush or trickle
    • Backache

    If you are experiencing symptoms of preterm labour, your doctor or midwife can determine if your risk of preterm birth is real or perhaps quite low. Sometimes the symptoms are real but the risk isn’t – many women present with signs and symptoms of preterm labour but do not go on to deliver preterm. Fetal fibronectin (fFN) testing can precisely measure your true risk of preterm labour.

    Even if you don't have any known risks, you should contact your doctor or midwife if you have any of the warning signs of preterm labour.

  • What is your risk for delivering early?


    Being aware of your risk for preterm labour can help you take a more active role in your pregnancy and your baby’s health, and you may want to ask for a fetal fibronectin test based on your risk factors. Together, you and your doctor or midwife can use this knowledge to work out a plan.

    The causes of preterm births are not fully understood, although there are some related risk factors.

    Traditional risk factors include:5

    • Previous preterm birth
    • Pregnant with twins or more
    • Problems with the uterus, cervix or placenta

    If you have any of these risk factors, it’s especially important for you to know the symptoms of preterm labour and what to do if they occur.



  1. World Health Organisation (WHO). Preterm Birth – Key Facts. Available at: http://www.who.int/news-room/fact-sheets/detail/preterm-birth
  2. Bliss.org.uk. Prematurity Statistics in the UK. How many babies are born prematurely in the UK? Available at: https://www.bliss.org.uk/parents/in-hospital/neonatal-care-statistics/prematurity-statistics-in-the-uk
  3. ACOG Technical Bulletin, 1995, No. 206; National Vital Statistics Report 2000;48(3)
  4. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Preterm labour guidance. Published November 2015. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/ng25/resources/preterm-labour-and-birth-pdf-725177521861
  5. National Institute for Health and Care Excellence (NICE). Diagnostic consultation document. March 2018. Available at: https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/gid-dg10017/documents/diagnostics-consultation-document
  6. National Health Service (NHS). Premature labour and birth. November 2017. Available at: https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/premature-early-labour/#signs-of-premature-labour

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