How Long Does Labor Last?

Average lengths of labor

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

Labor has three stages, but the active phase of the first stage is what many think of, as it is when contractions become strong and frequent. This phase can last 4 to 8 hours. In total, all of the stages of labor—from when the baby 'drops' (lightening) to delivery of the placenta—can take 12 to 24 hours for first births and about 8 to 10 hours for subsequent ones.

These ranges may not match up with what you've heard friends report about their experiences, however. While it's normal to wonder what the average labor time is for most women, especially as your due date approaches, it's important to remember that every labor and delivery is different, and labor time is often very unpredictable.

Furthermore, how labor time is counted can vary, which affects reports that come from researchers and healthcare providers (and, therefore, reported statistics).

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How Long Is Each Stage of Labor?

According to the National Institutes of Health (NIH) Office of Research on Women's Health, here is approximately how long you can expect each stage of labor to last:

 Labor Stage  Duration (Approx.) What's Happening? 
 1st 12-19 hours Contractions occur causing effacement and dilation of the cervix from around 4 to 10 centimeters (full dilation); occurs in three phases
 2nd 20 minutes-2 hours Pushing the baby through the birth canal and delivering; intervention usually recommended when time in this stage exceeds 3 to 4 hours
3rd  5-30 minutes Placenta is delivered (occurs after the baby is born)

If it's not your first birth, you may very well find that the lower ends of these timeframes apply in your case (though that's not a given).

For the purposes of statistical analysis, the lengths of the stages of labor may be reported separately or lumped together. This can help explain why you may see slight differences in labor times when reading up on the topic.

Breakdown of the Phases of Stage 1

The phases of stage 1 are generally defined as follows:

  • Early labor phase (hours or, for first-time moms, possibly days): During this time, your cervix begins to dilate (opening from 4 to 6 centimeters) and efface (thin and soften). Contractions begin but are erratic, and you may lose your mucus plug. Lightening occurs to move the baby into position for birth.
  • Active labor phase (about 4 to 8 hours): This is when your cervix works to fully dilate to 10 centimeters (at a rate of about 1 centimeter per hour) and contractions become stronger, more predictable, and more frequent. This period of time may be longer or shorter for some women; in fact, it can be especially short for those who have had a previous vaginal delivery.
  • Transition (about 15 to 60 minutes): This is actually considered part of the active labor phase and is punctuated by stronger and stronger contractions. You will feel pain in your lower back/rectum and want to push—right now—but will be advised to wait until you are fully dilated.

Some doctors and researchers consider the early labor and active phases of stage 1 one and the same. And since early labor doesn't happen in the hospital in most cases, it is hard for its duration to always be accurately measured.

This is likely why it doesn't appear in much of the data that analyzes the length of labor—and why many studies vary in how it is documented. For this reason, many hospitals record data for active labor only.

Longer Labors

Women who remain in the first stage of labor for more than 17 hours are more likely to be considered for interventions to move things along. Common options include:

The use of forceps and episiotomy may also be considered in some cases.

Some doctors are more conservative than others when making these determinations. Doctors will consider multiple factors—including recommended laboring time limits and whether or not the mother and baby appear to be doing well—when deciding how long to let labor continue.

Factors Affecting Labor Length

The length and experience of each labor are different for every woman and pregnancy. Though the duration of one's labor can't be guaranteed, there are a variety of factors that can influence it. Some include:

  • Whether not it's your first vaginal birth: Subsequent births, on average, are quicker. The shorter labors of women who have already given birth are thought to be because the body remains looser after the previous delivery. Also, the body may simply be more attuned to the process from having done it before.
  • Your pelvis (shape and size): A smaller, narrower pelvis may contribute to longer labor.
  • Maternal age: Older mothers are known to labor longer.
  • Higher maternal body mass index: Studies show that mothers who are overweight have longer labors.
  • The baby's position: If the baby has dropped and is in the optimal position (head down and facing your back), labor will likely be speedier.
  • Contraction strength and timing: When contractions are more intense, regular, and closer together, labor is likely to progress more quickly.
  • Use of labor-induction drugs: Such intervention is usually done when labor is not progressing adequately. Its purpose is to intensify contractions and speed up labor, which can lead to birth in a matter of a few hours for some women. However, if you have a fully closed cervix at the time of induction, you may still not give birth for days.
  • Use of epidural: Some studies show that having an epidural may add some time to your labor (anywhere from 30 minutes to 2 hours). However, the American Society of Anesthesiologists disputes this, asserting that when labor is extended, it is usually due to factors such as the position of the baby—not the epidural. In fact, they cite evidence that epidurals may reduce the duration of the first stage of labor by allowing the mother to relax.

Labor Times: Then and Now

What laboring mothers experience has changed over time with the advent of pain interventions, new offerings at hospitals (such as baths for water births), and much more.

Labor time has changed too, mainly due to when women are choosing to have their babies and how doctors are now approaching later-stage deliveries.

Maternal Age

A study done by the NIH compared data on almost 138,000 spontaneous, singleton births from two time periods: 2002-2008 and 1959-1966. The review showed that the average time spent in active labor was longer for first-time moms in the more recent years than the earlier ones, when most labor patterns began to be recorded (6.5 hours versus less than 4 hours, respectively).  

Researchers attributed this to a variety of factors, the first one being that maternal age has increased. At the time of giving birth, the mothers in the early 2000s were, on average, about 4 years older than the women who gave birth in the 1960s. The study researchers cited that older mothers tend to take longer to give birth than younger mothers, as noted above.

Delivery Practices

In 1960s-era deliveries, many doctors used a surgical incision (episiotomy) to enlarge the vaginal opening during delivery or surgical instruments to extract the baby from the birth canal. Those interventions may speed delivery but are now less common due to the potential of adverse effects.

Today, doctors may intervene when labor fails to progress by administering Pitocin or performing a C-section. In fact, the rate of Cesarean delivery was four times higher in the early 2000s than it was 50 years prior.

These are very different delivery procedures that can have an effect on labor and delivery data.

Furthermore, despite some lingering reluctance by some doctors, others may allow women to labor longer than in the past. A 2018 comprehensive review of research on labor in low-risk women noted that many women can safely continue to labor at the edges of the duration typically considered safe (or longer) as long as the labor is progressing and both mother and child are doing well.

A Word From Verywell

Knowing how long your labor will last would probably help satisfy some curiosity about the unknown. Unfortunately, like most everything with parenting, labor time isn't scripted.

The average labor times can give you a sense of what you might experience, but your mind may be better focused on remaining flexible when it comes to your expectations and embracing the fact that every labor is unique.

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Article Sources
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