Sandor Kacso/Fotolia

What's The Difference Between Short Labor & Long Labor? OB-GYNs Explain The Difference

Ad failed to load

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.

Ad failed to load

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.

Ad failed to load

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."

Ad failed to load

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.

Check out Romper's new video series, Romper's Doula Diaries:

Ad failed to load

Watch full episodes of Romper's Doula Diaries on Facebook Watch.

Ad failed to load
Must Reads

5 Parenting Habits That Increase Your Chances Of Successfully Potty-Training Your Child

From starting solids to learning to walk, every childhood milestone presents its own unique set of challenges — but this is especially true of potty training. Indeed, the very thought strikes fear into the heart of many a toddler parent, particularly…
By Jacqueline Burt Cote

Getting Pregnant Might Mean Losing The Plus-Size Body I Love

For the last two years, I haven’t been my body’s biggest champion. I’ve gained 50 pounds. The stress of helping a parent get sober, a house purchase, and a new job got the best of me. But now, at 36, with talks between my husband and I about having a…
By Loren Kleinman

7 Hilarious Differences Between Having A Baby In Your 20s Vs Your 30s

I was 24 when I had my daughter. And even though that pregnancy was neither expected nor pleasant, I was optimistic. Sure, I guess your 20s are "supposed" to be about finding yourself, finishing college, starting your career, and navigating less-than…
By Candace Ganger

Babies "R" Us Was The First Place I Went When I Found Out I Would Be A Mom

For years I struggled to have a baby, and the sight of toys and layettes made my heart hurt. For me, Toys "R" Us and Babies "R" Us were a complete no-go zone, a reminder of everything I was missing out on. My mom would walk the long way around Target…
By Becky Bracken

New Moms Have Two Options: Be "Sad & Fat" Or "Desperate & Thin"

As the line goes, the worst thing you could say about me, I've already thought about myself. In the early postpartum period with my son, it was: "I am overweight, lonely, and heartbroken." It was four days after I brought my son into the world, and I…
By Danielle Campoamor

6 Fascinating Facts About Spring Babies: You Could Have A Leader On Your Hands

Does the season in which you are born affect you or are all seasons pretty equal? It turns out that there are many ways in which the your child's birth season could give you an insight into things to come. Whether you are expecting a baby in the next…
By Shari Maurer

Kids Will Love These TV Shows & Movies Coming To Netflix In April

It's that time of the month again: as March draws to a close, Netflix gets ready for a little bit of spring cleaning. Though some TV shows and movies will have to find homes elsewhere, their departure makes room for all kinds of exciting new media. A…
By Megan Walsh

I'm A Stay-At-Home Mom &, Face It, These 11 Stereotypes Are Totally True

Hello, friends! It's me, your resident stay-at-home mom. You know, there's a lot that's said about me and my kind, and the vast majority of it is not even remotely true. For example, this whole "we're lazy, vapid, unambitious, anti-feminist, backstab…
By Jamie Kenney

The Pressure To Worry About The Gap Between Kids Is So Bad For Moms

"Two under two is absolutely crazy," a friend recently told me upon hearing the news that I was expecting a second child. "Why would you do this to yourself? Seriously, why?" However harsh her words, she was only echoing the same feelings I'd been ba…
By Marie Southard Ospina

To Be Honest, I Couldn't Survive Motherhood Without My Job

The decision to work outside the home once you've become a parent can be a complicated one. Some people don't really have a choice, and go back to work because they're either a single parent or can't sustain their family on one income. Some choose to…
By Priscilla Blossom

I Feel Guilty That My Kid’s Dad Is A Better Parent Than Me, & That’s BS

I was scared, and he was sure. I was clueless, and he was well-researched. I was making mistakes, and he was picking up the pieces. From the moment I found out I was pregnant until just last night, when I threw my hands up in the air and left the alw…
By Danielle Campoamor

These Millennial Parents Are Taking Gender-Neutral Parenting To An Entirely New Level

A woman on the subway looks at my bulbous shape and asks, “What are you having?” I take a deep breath and throw a glance to my 5-year-old. “I’m having a baby,” I say to the woman. “No, no” the woman says laughing as she pushes further. “Are you havin…
By Madison Young

My Daughter Is Obsessed With Being "Pretty" & I'm Way Past Terrified

Last week, when I picked up my daughter after school, she immediately wanted to know if I liked her hair. "Is it pretty?" she asked. Her hair was pulled up into two ponytails that were intertwined into thick, long braids. A shimmering pink and purple…
By Dina Leygerman

7 Things No One Tells You About Having A Baby In Your 20s, But I Will

I was 24 when I found out I was pregnant with my daughter. The pregnancy was a surprise, since I was on birth control (side note: antibiotics and birth control don't mix), but my partner and I decided to continue with the pregnancy and committed to m…
By Candace Ganger

7 Things I Wish My Partner Had Said To Me In The First Hour After Giving Birth

I don't know if it was the buzz of the surrounding machines, the non-existent cry of our son as the doctors tried to resuscitate him, or the fact that I'd already been through labor and delivery once before, but I knew something was missing after I h…
By Candace Ganger

Moms’ Groups Weren’t For Me, Sorry

I go to my moms’ club everyday of the week, but not usually on weekends. My moms' group is a place I can always count on finding fellow mothers who understand the daily struggles and triumphs of parenthood and of juggling life’s responsibilities. Dep…
By Samantha Taylor

I've Had 3 Miscarriages But *Please* Keep Telling Me About Your Pregnancy

I can feel the tension the moment my friend announces her pregnancy. I can hear the forced nonchalant attitude she's willing herself to exude as she fishes for the ultrasound. I know why I was the last to learn that she was expecting; why she keeps l…
By Danielle Campoamor

7 Early Signs You're Going To Need An Epidural, According To Experts

Even if you've constructed an elaborate birth plan, it's impossible to control every aspect of labor and delivery. Complications can occur, proactive measures might be necessary, and your mind is subject to change when those damn contractions really …
By Candace Ganger

11 Essential Products To Pack In Your Hospital Bag, According To OB-GYNs

The minute you go into labor (or think you're going into labor), chaos ensues. You and your partner are likely to get a little frantic, just like in the movies, so you most definitely want to have a hospital bag packed before the day comes. This prec…
By Abi Berwager Schreier

7 Photos You *Must* Take In The First 6 Months Of Motherhood

In my experience, becoming a mom is like becoming an amateur photographer. There's just something about the need to capture every single coo and sorta-smile that leaves you obsessed with all things photography. I know I couldn't stop taking selfies w…
By Candace Ganger