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The Management of Preterm Labor

Goldenberg, Robert L. MD

High-Risk Pregnancy Series: An Expert's View

Preterm birth is the leading cause of neonatal mortality and a substantial portion of all birth-related short- and long-term morbidity. Spontaneous preterm labor is responsible for more than half of preterm births. Its management is the topic of this review. Although there are many maternal characteristics associated with preterm birth, the etiology in most cases is not clear, although, for the earliest cases, the role of intrauterine infection is assuming greater importance. Most efforts to prevent preterm labor have not proven to be effective, and equally frustrating, most efforts at arresting preterm labor once started have failed. The most important components of management, therefore, are aimed at preventing neonatal complications through the use of corticosteroids and antibiotics to prevent group B streptococcal neonatal sepsis, and avoiding traumatic deliveries. Delivery in a medical center with an experienced resuscitation team and the availability of a newborn intensive care unit will ensure the best possible neonatal outcomes. Obstetric practices for which there is little evidence of effectiveness in preventing or treating preterm labor include the following: bed rest, hydration, sedation, home uterine activity monitoring, oral terbutaline after successful intravenous tocolysis, and tocolysis without the concomitant use of corticosteroids.

Obstetric strategies used to prevent and arrest preterm labor as well as to reduce adverse neonatal outcomes associated with preterm birth are reviewed.

Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Birmingham, Alabama.

Address reprint requests to: Robert L. Goldenberg, MD, University of Alabama at Birmingham, Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Division of Maternal-Fetal Medicine, Birmingham, AL 35294–0021; E-mail:

We have invited select authorities to present background information on challenging clinical problems and practical information on diagnosis and treatment for use by practitioners.

This work is based in part on a literature review performed by Patrick Ramsey, MD, and his contribution is acknowledged.

We would like to thank the following individuals who, in addition to members of our Editorial Board, will serve as referees for this series: Dwight P. Cruikshank, MD, Ronald S. Gibbs, MD, Gary D. V. Hankins, MD, Philip B. Mead, MD, Kenneth L. Noller, MD, Catherine Y. Spong, MD, and Edward E. Wallach, MD.

Received February 14, 2002. Received in revised form May 29, 2002. Accepted June 27, 2002.

© 2002 by The American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Published by Wolters Kluwer Health, Inc. All rights reserved.