precipitous labor
Precipitous or rapid labor lasts only a few hours before the baby is born

Precipitous labor, also called rapid labor, is when you’re only in labor a few hours before you give birth. Rapid labor can end 3-5 hours after regular contractions start. 

Studies estimate that nearly 1-3 out of every 100 expecting women in the U.S. experience precipitous labor. While it’s not clear exactly what causes precipitous labor factors that can increase the risk include:

  • History of multiple deliveries which have weakened the pelvic muscles
  • History of rapid labor
  • Uterus that contracts with great strength
  • History of giving birth to a low-weight baby
  • Labor induction using hormones
  • Baby was conceived through the use of fertility drugs
  • History of hypertension and related disorders during pregnancy (such as preeclampsia)

Having one or more of these factors does not mean that you will have precipitous labor. And you may experience rapid labor even if none of the factors above are present. Talk to your doctor or midwife to understand more about what you should know about rapid labor.

What are the normal stages of labor?

The process of labor and childbirth is often divided into 3 stages, typically lasting anywhere from 6-18 hours:

  1. Active labor: Process that leads to the delivery of the baby. During this time, the actual labor contractions increase in intensity as the labor progresses. The mucus plug that covers the cervix is expelled and fluid begins to leak.
  2. Birth of the baby: The mother’s pushing leads to the birth of the baby.
  3. Delivery of the placenta: The placenta is pushed out within a few minutes after the baby is born

Some experts break down labor into 4 stages, with early labor preceding active labor.

What are signs and symptoms of precipitous labor?

Different women may experience different signs of precipitous labor. However, the typical signs and symptoms include:

  • Sudden onset of contractions with closely-spaced intervals
  • Intense pain with each contraction
  • A long contraction that feels never-ending
  • An intense urge to bear down, similar to the feeling of a bowel movement
  • Urge to pass stools immediately

What are the risks of precipitous labor?

While rapid labor may sound enticing for some women, since it means not having to deliver a baby after long hours of agony, precipitous labor comes with risks.

Risks for mothers

  • Tearing and laceration of the cervix and vagina
  • Bleeding from the uterus or vagina
  • Shock (due to loss of blood)
  • Infections (due to delivery in an unsterilized environment, such as the car or bathroom)

Risks for babies

How can you cope during precipitous labor?

It can be frightening to think that you may suddenly have to give birth on the way to a hospital. But while you can’t stop rapid labor once it has started, you can make sure to take precautions so that you are prepared and it happens safely.

If you see signs of rapid labor, get immediate medical help by contacting your doctor or calling 911. You can also try to remain calm by:

  • Staying in a clean, sterile place until you get to the hospital
  • Laying down either on your back or side
  • Having someone by your side
  • Practicing breathing techniques

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Medically Reviewed on 6/11/2021
References
American Pregnancy Association. Rapid Labor. https://americanpregnancy.org/healthy-pregnancy/labor-and-birth/rapid-labor-9168/

Suzuki S. Clinical Significance of Precipitous Labor. J Clin Med Res. 2015;7(3):150-153. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4285060/

Albers LL, Schiff M, Gorwoda JG. The Length of Active Labor in Normal Pregnancies. Obstet Gynecol. 1996;87(3):355-9. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/8598954/