How Long Does Labor Last?

Average lengths of labor

Verywell / Brianna Gilmartin 

As your due date approaches, it's normal to wonder what the average labor time is for most women. While every pregnancy, labor, and delivery is different, the average length of active labor for first births is estimated to last between five and seven hours and a few hours shorter for subsequent births. However, labor time (and the exact definition of each stage of labor) varies quite a bit among pregnancies, often unpredictably. Below, we review the many factors that can affect the length of labor.

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How Long Is Each Stage of Labor?

You might be thinking that the numbers mentioned above don't sound at all like the length of labors that you have heard of from your friends. This is because labor and its phases are not always defined or compared in a standardized way. Essentially, for the purposes of statistical analysis, the lengths of the multiple stages of labor may be reported separately or lumped together.

Complicating the effort to discuss labor duration is that while there are three stages of labor, the first stage has three parts: early, active, and transition. The first stage of labor is when contractions occur causing effacement (thinning and softening) and dilation of the cervix from around four to 10 centimeters (full dilation). The second stage is when pushing occurs and the baby is delivered. The final stage is when the placenta is delivered.

Duration of Labor Stages

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:

  • First stage: Between 12 and 19 hours (includes early, active, and transition) for first births
  • Second stage: The pushing stage typically lasts between 20 minutes and two hours
  • Third stage: Lasts between five and 30 minutes and occurs after the baby is born

Estimating labor times is complicated by the fact that some doctors and researchers consider early labor and active labor as one and the same, while many hospitals record data for active labor only. Since early labor doesn't happen in the hospital (in most cases), it is harder for researchers to accurately measure this phase, which is likely why it doesn't appear in much of the data we have that analyzes the length of labor—and that many studies vary in how it's documented.

However, below are some reported range averages for the length of each phase of the first stage and second stage.

First Stage: Early labor

Early labor takes six to 12 hours on average. During this time, contractions become stronger and closer together, the cervix opens and softens, and the baby drops (lightening) to move into position for birth. Usually, early labor is defined as the cervix opening from four to six centimeters.

First Stage: Active Labor

Active labor may take from four to eight hours. For some women, active labor may be even longer, while it may be much shorter for others (especially for those who've had a previous vaginal delivery). Contractions intensify and the cervix progresses from six to eight or nine centimeters.

First Stage: Transition

Transition is the shortest phase and most intense. This phase may last anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours and is punctuated by stronger and stronger contractions. This is when the cervix expands those last few centimeters to full dilation, signaling you've reached the second stage—time to push.

Longer Labors

First stage labors lasting over 17 hours are more likely to be considered for interventions (such as medications like Pitocin to strengthen contractions, the use of forceps, an episiotomy, or c-section) to move things along. 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.

Second Stage: Pushing

During the second stage, the baby is delivered. Typically, as noted above, pushing lasts up to two hours. When this stage is prolonged past three to four hours intervention is usually recommended.

Factors Affecting Labor Length

The length and experience of each labor are different for every woman and pregnancy. Often, how long labor lasts is unpredictable but there are a variety of factors that influence labor duration, including the following:

  • Age of the mother (maternal age): Older mothers are known to labor longer, which is one explanation for the longer average labor times reported today compared with 50 or more years ago (more on this below).
  • Contraction strength and timing: When contractions are more intense, regular, and closer together, labor is likely to progress more quickly.
  • Higher Maternal Body Mass Index: Studies show that mothers who are overweight have longer labors.
  • Natural labor vs. induction: Induced labors (often using Pitocin, which is synthetic oxytocin) may take longer, depending on the status of your cervix and other labor-readiness signs. Some people already have some opening and ripening of their cervix, while others start their induction with a fully closed cervix, which increases the likelihood of the cervix taking longer to ripen.
  • Second-time (or more) moms: An average of 5.6 hours has been reported for subsequent deliveries. However, on the longer end, some second-time moms were near the 14-hour mark. The quicker labors of women who have already given birth are thought to be because the body remains a bit looser after the previous delivery. Also, the body may simply be more attuned to the process from having done it before.
  • The baby's position: If the baby has dropped and is in the optimal position (head down and facing the mom's back), labor is likely to be speedier.
  • Use of epidural: Some studies show that having an epidural may add some time to your labor, anywhere from 30 minutes to two hours. However, the American Society of Anesthesiologists disputes this, asserting that when labor is extended, it is usually due to other factors, such as the position of the baby, and that epidurals on their own do not extend labor. In fact, they cite evidence that epidurals may reduce the duration of the first stage of labor by allowing the mother to relax.
  • Use of Pitocin: When drugs, such as Pitocin, are used to speed along your labor (by intensifying contractions), your labor will speed up. However, this step is usually taken when labor is not progressing adequately, as in it's going slowly, so the overall labor might be longer.
  • Your pelvis (shape and size): A smaller pelvis may contribute to longer labor.

Research on How Long Labor Lasts

Research data from a federal study by the NIH comparing almost 140,000 births, shows that average labor time was longer in the early 2000s than it was in the 1960s (when most labor patterns began to be recorded). The review study found that it took the typical first-time mom around 6.5 hours in active labor nowadays, while about 50 years ago, first-time moms often spent less than 4 hours in this stage.  

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

Another factor causing longer labors is that later-stage delivery practices have changed.

In 1960s-era deliveries, many doctors used a surgical incision to enlarge the vaginal opening during delivery or used 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 of the procedures.

Today, doctors may intervene when labor fails to progress by administering Pitocin or performing a cesarean delivery (delivery by c-section was four times higher in 2000 than it was 50 years prior). These are very different delivery procedures that can have an effect on labor and delivery data that is collected.

A 2018 comprehensive review of the duration of labor in low-risk women also found longer average times of labor as well as a range of ways doctors and scientists define the various labor stages and their length, which also explains some of the variation in labor length reported. The researchers also found that many women can safely continue to labor at the edges of the typical duration considered safe (or longer) as long as the labor is progressing and both mother and child are doing well.

A Word From Verywell

It's normal to be a bit apprehensive about childbirth and to want to know how long your labor will last. Unfortunately, that's something you really pinpoint exactly ahead of time. However, knowing the average times may give you a sense of what to expect. It might help as well to embrace that just like every baby, each labor is unique. Yours may last a bit shorter or longer than anticipated, so aim to be flexible in your expectations—after all, being adaptable is what parenthood is all about.

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