How long were you in labor? This is a popular question, and a story most moms are eager to share. But many women aren't sure how to measure the length of labor, which is actually a four-stage process, not all of which is defined by the intense contractions or pushing depicted in movies. Most importantly, first-time moms don't know what to expect in terms of how long their labor will be. You've heard stories from both ends of the extreme — babies that came fast or labor that stalled — so what's the difference between short labor and long labor? To clear up confusion, OB-GYNs explain the differences between labor lengths.
"The average length of labor for the first-time mom can vary from eight to 18 hours," says Mary O'Toole, an OB-GYN at MemorialCare Saddleback Medical Center in Laguna Hills, California, in an interview with Romper. Even if your labor is longer than that, it could still be in the normal range, according to Yen Tran, OB-GYN at Orange Coast Medical Center in Fountain Valley, California. Tran tells Romper that a new mom's labor "could take up to 24 hours from the onset of contractions."
If those estimates seem intimidating, the good news is that second babies usually come faster. O'Toole estimates the average second or third labor at seven hours. This was certainly true in my experience. While I had tentative early signs of labor the night before both my children were born, my second was born about five to six hours sooner than his older sister. In fact, it was time to push so soon after I arrived at the birth center, I was disappointed I couldn't spend more time in the whirlpool tub.
To understand the differences between short labor and long labor, you need to know the four stages of labor. Effacement and dilation of your cervix is the first stage of labor, according to Kaiser Permanente, which notes that this whole process can take about 12 to 13 hours for a first-time mom or seven to eight for subsequent pregnancies. Your doctor may even tell you that your cervix has started to thin (effacement) days before your labor actually begins. So if you want to win the longest labor contest in your new mom's group, try telling everyone you were in labor for a week.
Within this first stage are three distinct phases linked to the number of centimeters your cervix has dilated: early labor (zero to 4 centimeters), active labor (4 to 7 centimeters), and transition (7 to 10 centimeters). Tran says, "It takes a long time to get from a closed cervix to 4 centimeters dilation, which is the latent phase of labor. The active phrase of labor is faster than the latent phase." Remember that "Braxton-Hicks contractions, or 'false' contractions, are not indicative that labor has begun or is preparing to begin," explains O'Toole. So how do you know when your labor is actually starting? "Labor starts with an increase in the Braxton-Hicks contractions that go from being painless to painful. The intensity increases and will occur at regular intervals. We are looking for regular painful contractions and most importantly, we should see change in the cervical exam (meaning there should be dilation)," O'Toole notes.
The remaining three stages of labor are the pushing stage (baby moves through the birth canal), birth of your placenta, and recovery. As you can see, the first stage makes up most of what we think of when we talk about labor and its length. Factors that contribute to the length of labor include "gestational age, cervical favorability (is the cervix soft, dilated, positioned properly) previous surgical procedure of the cervix (as this may cause scarring), and multiple gestation," says O'Toole. "Labor is long if the cervix is not favorable. If the patient has a poor Bishop score, it takes longer to induce. The Bishop, or cervix, score is a scoring system used during pre-labor that helps to predict if induction of labor might be required and may also assess the chances of spontaneous preterm delivery," Tran explains.
"Every labor is different," O'Toole regularly tells her patients. This includes multiple labors with the same woman. There's also no set rule for how long an OB-GYN will let a woman labor before a C-section is recommended. "As long as the woman is making progress and the status of mom and baby are normal, then labor may continue, as we try to reassure patients there is no time clock. If a woman is in the active phase of labor and does not make progress despite adequate contractions , she may be advised to have a C-section after six hours of no change in her cervical exam. Also, in the pushing phase, if progress is not made after two to three hours, a C-section may be advised," explains O'Toole. Tran adds that the call to end labor with a C-section depends on "tracing, maternal fever, labor curve and many other factors."
Ultimately, you can't be sure how long you'll be in labor until it's all said and done. You can prepare through birth education classes, planning your birth hopes and dreams, and other strategies that make you feel less anxious and more ready. Don't put too much stock in other people's labor stories, positive or negative, though, because every experience is so different.
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