What You Should Know About Precipitous Labor

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Ask any woman about her birth story, and chances are one of the first things she’ll tell you is how long she was in labor for—and boy, can it vary. There are women who were in labor for days, and women who were in labor for only a few hours. A super-fast labor sounds like a dream, right? Well…maybe not.

Overview

Precipitous labor, also called rapid labor, is defined as giving birth after less than 3 hours of regular contractions. Sometimes it’s also called precipitous labor if labor lasts anywhere under 5 hours. Although it might seem like a good thing, rapid labor can also carry risks and drawbacks.

Labor is often broken down into three stages, although some break it down into four, separating early labor and active labor.

Stages of Labor

Stage 1 is early labor and active labor. Early labor can last hours or days, and this is when the cervix starts to dilate, you experience the loss of your mucus plug (also called bloody show), and you feel some contractions, although they aren’t fully regular yet. Active labor is when the contractions come regularly and become stronger and longer, and the cervix progresses to dilation of 10 centimeters. Stage 2 is when the baby is born, and Stage 3 is the delivery of the placenta.

On average, active labor to delivery of the placenta is approximately six to 18 hours, which is why precipitous labor is so notable.

Risk Factors

While not “risk factors” per se, there are some variables that might play into a potential precipitous labor. These can include younger maternal age, having given birth previously, lower infant birth weight, and those with hypertensive disorders (like preeclampsia). Keep in mind, though, that you can have all of these characteristics and not have rapid labor, and conversely, you can have none of these factors and have a rapid labor. If you’re concerned about any risk factors for precipitous labor, talk with your doctor or midwife.

Signs and Symptoms

Symptoms of rapid labor can vary, but can include:

  • Sudden pattern of strong contractions that are very close to one another and don’t let you rest or recover between each one
  • Pain that feels like one long contraction
  • Sudden feeling of having to push down like a bowel movement; this can also feel like strong pressure in the pelvis

Complications

Although a very fast labor might initially sound appealing, there are some difficulties with it, as well as some potential problems. Emotionally, the labor can be frightening and stressful because you don’t have enough time to develop and use coping strategies to deal with the pain and contractions. This can lead you to feel out of control, or like things are happening too fast.

Things like pain management or your original birth plan may not be able to be utilized, which can add to feelings of distress. From a practical standpoint, location can be a problem; if you live far away from the hospital, there is a shorter amount of time to get there once you realize how far your labor has progressed.

Physically, precipitous labor can cause:

  • Increased risk of vaginal and/or cervical tearing or laceration
  • Increased risk of hemorrhage
  • Risk of infection in baby or mother if birth takes place in an unsterilized environment

What to Do

As any healthcare provider or doula will tell you, labor and birth are unpredictable. You really never know how your birth experience will unfold, and much of it is not in our control. If you find yourself experiencing rapid labor, there are some things you can do to reduce anxiety:

  • Call your doctor or midwife and let them know what is going on, and that you think you are experiencing rapid labor. If you think birth is imminent, call 911.
  • Try to use breathing techniques that you learned in childbirth class, or simply breathe deeply through contractions.
  • Try to have someone with you at all times.
  • Stay in a clean (if possible) place until help arrives, if you cannot go to the hospital.
  • Lay down on your left side, which is better for blood flow for the baby and might help slow contractions.

A Word From Verywell

If you’re worried about precipitous labor, talk with your healthcare provider. Ask if you should be aware of any possible risk factors for you having a precipitous labor, and what to do should you find yourself in that situation. Your doctor will be able to provide you with a personalized answer, based on your pregnancy history and any relevant medical issues that might come into play.

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