Delivery

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This Is What Precipitous Labor Means, According To Experts

A fast labor sounds great, but are there any downsides?

Nobody wants labor to last any longer than necessary, but is it possible to deliver a baby too quickly? What OB/GYNS want you to know about precipitous labor and delivery will likely reassure all moms-to-be. There’s no one “correct” way to go about labor, and some babies just seem to be in the fast lane when it’s time to greet the world.

What Is Precipitous Labor?

“Precipitous labor is when the ‘active’ phase of your labor (typically 6cm dilated and beyond) progresses quickly,” Dr. Jane van Dis, Medical Director and board-certified OB/GYN at Maven Clinic, tells Romper. “Women who have precipitous labor may note less than 2 hours between the onset of labor and the point of delivery.” Compared to most births, this is very rapid. “Labor, on average, takes 8-18 hours from onset of contractions until delivery of the baby,” Dr. Mary Jacobson (Dr. J), OBGYN Chief Medical Officer at Alpha, tells Romper.

For moms who experience these rapid deliveries, giving birth in such a quick timespan can make your head spin. As one writer who was only in labor for 3 hours explained in Romper, the majority of their labor was spent “eating Chinese food and folding laundry,” which is honestly not the worst way to get through it.

Can You Predict Precipitous Labor Ahead Of Time?

“If you have never gone through labor before it will be tough to know if you’re going have precipitous labor,” as Dr. Drew Benac, an OB/GYN at Austin Regional Clinic, tells Romper. “Women who have had a ‘fast delivery’ in the past usually have it marked in their medical chart to make preparations for future pregnancies.” For most first-time moms, predicting exactly how long labor will take is tricky.

If your first labor was fast, however, then make sure your birthing team is aware of this fact. “If women have a history of precipitous delivery, they often have precipitous labors in subsequent pregnancies,” says Dr. Jane. Heading to the hospital at the first sign of labor contractions or your water breaking is a wise move, Dr. Jane further explains. Also make sure you’re familiar with the common signs of labor, such as increased contractions or the loss of your mucus plug.

What Causes Precipitous Labor?

Although the exact cause of precipitous labor is not completely understood, some factors may make you more likely to experience it. “History of rapid labor, prior deliveries, a small infant, or placental abruption are the strongest risk factors for a precipitous delivery,” says Dr. J. Young maternal age can also be a factor, as Dr. Benac explains. If you have any questions or concerns about a rapid delivery, then discuss your chances of precipitous labor with your doctor and midwife.

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Is Precipitous Labor And Delivery Safe For Mom & Baby?

For the most part, fast labor itself does not pose a serious health risk. “It is safe to experience precipitous labor, but there is an increased risk of hemorrhage, vaginal and/or cervical tearing,” says Dr. J. Although most lacerations due to child birth don’t cause serious complications, according to a study in StatPearls, it’s generally something you’d rather avoid.

An uncommon but serious condition can sometimes be the cause of precipitous labor. “For mothers who have had a prior vaginal birth and go into rapid labor, the complications with precipitous labor are very rare,” as Dr. Aparna Sridhar, associate clinical professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, tells Romper. “In the rare event, precipitous labor can be due to abruption (premature separation) of placenta and that can cause significant issues for both mother and the baby.” Placental abruption affects about 0.4-1% of pregnancies overall, with slightly lower rates in Nordic countries, according to a study in Acta Obstetricia et Gynecologica Scandinavica. Again, Dr. Sridhar stresses that this is an infrequent complication. If you have any questions or concerns about abruption affecting your pregnancy, however, discuss them with your doctor.

Also remember that in the vast majority of instances, a rapid delivery simply means your baby arrives sooner than expected. “Normally it's entirely safe to experience precipitous labor!” says Dr. Jane.

How Can I Prep For Precipitous Labor?

If you are likely to experience a fast labor and delivery, then it’s important to review your birth plan. “Document a plan of when to go to your planned delivery site, whom to call, and exactly where in the facility to go at all times of day and night,” says Dr. J. Talk to your doctor about any other prep work that you can do ahead of time. Having a plan in place will hopefully make any sudden arrivals a little less stressful. (Although it’s OK to be caught off guard, too: a state trooper once helped deliver a baby on the side of the road after pulling over the expectant parents for speeding, and one mom gave birth at a Six Flags park with no real issues. Sometimes there’s just no stopping nature.) For the most part, experiencing a precipitous labor and delivery is a safe, if sometimes surprising, way to welcome your baby into the world.

Experts:

Dr. Drew Benac, an OB/GYN at Austin Regional Clinic

Dr. Jane van Dis, Medical Director and board-certified OB/GYN at Maven Clinic

Dr. Mary Jacobson (Dr. J), OBGYN Chief Medical Officer at Alpha

Dr. Aparna Sridhar, associate clinical professor in obstetrics and gynecology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA

Studies Cited:

Ramar CN, Grimes WR. Perineal Lacerations. 2020 Jun 28. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan–. PMID: 32644494.

Tikkanen M. Placental abruption: epidemiology, risk factors and consequences. Acta Obstet Gynecol Scand. 2011 Feb;90(2):140-9. doi: 10.1111/j.1600-0412.2010.01030.x. Epub 2010 Dec 7. PMID: 21241259.