Labor: Too fast, too slow, or just right?

How long was your labor?

It’s the question that is so often asked when women have just given birth or are sharing their birth story. The truth is, there is huge variation in how long labor can take, but it is usually longest in women who have never given birth vaginally before.

Early Labor

Early labor is usually the longest part of labor--and it’s often the most variable. Lasting anywhere from hours to days, it’s a good thing this part of labor is also characterized by contractions that tend to be mild, irregular, and allow time for rest in between.

Active Labor

Active labor is when contractions are consistently longer, stronger, and closer together and is characterized by contractions that are 3-4 minutes apart, around 60 seconds long, and strong enough that you can no longer talk through them. The length of active labor is, on average, 4-8 hours, but can be significantly longer. Women who have given birth before may have a much shorter active phase of labor.

Transition

Transition is typically the most inense part of labor but, fortunately, tends to be the shortest, lasting 15-60 minutes.

Pushing

The pushing stage of labor usually lasts about 2-4 hours for a women giving birth to her first baby, and significantly shorter (anywhere from a few minutes up to an hour) for a women who has previously given birth vaginally.

Sometimes labor is really fast.

When labor is under 3 hours from the start of regular contractions to the birth of the baby, the labor is referred to as precipitous. Although it seems like every woman wishes for a quick labor and delivery, the truth is that a labor that is too fast comes with problems.

  • Fear about how fast the labor is progressing
  • A more intense labor than expected
  • Increased risk of tearing
  • Concerns about getting to the birthplace in time

And other times, it takes forever.

Prodromal labor is labor that starts and stops, often at predictable times of day (usually in the evening) for days or weeks at a time. The contractions may be causing a small amount of change in the woman’s cervix but do not progress to be stronger, longer, or closer together as one would expect during active labor. Like a labor that is too fast, a labor that takes a long time can have a number of drawbacks.

  • Exhaustion
  • Dehydration or undernourishment
  • Disappointment and lack of confidence in the birth process

As doulas, we are experts in the labor process--whether fast, slow, or somewhere in between. You can count on us to support you and the people you love no matter how long your labor takes. To learn more about the process of labor, check out our comprehensive childbirth intensive.