There are many factors that influence the length of labor a new mother will experience. Every woman is different and therefore every child-birth is different too. New studies show that, while perhaps more uncomfortable for mothers, a slightly longer length of labor does not have a negative impact on moms or babies. In fact, longer labor may have better results because they require less intervention.
You may have heard horror stories about women in labor for over 24 hours. The thought of painful contractions for a day or more would terrify anyone. The truth is, active labor does not last that long. When you hear these anecdotes, they are referring to the cumulative labor process that includes three stages: The first stage is when a mother’s cervix dilates from 0-10 centimeters. Early labor is 0-4 cm, active labor is 5-8 cm, and transition is 8-10 cm. Stage two is the delivery process. Stage three is when the placenta is delivered.
Reports of long labor are not always accurate because many women don’t know exactly when their labor began. Early labor in stage one may not be recognizable because it may not be painful at all. Most women don’t go through early labor in the hospital. As contractions become more intense, moms-to-be are much more aware of the signs of labor. On average, first time moms labor for 12 to 18 hours in total. Second time moms labor for around 7 hours.
Besides birth order, several other factors may influence a woman’s length of labor. The baby’s positioning and the size and shape of the mom’s pelvis play a role. If the baby has to reposition itself during the labor process – as opposed to being in position prior to labor – labor may take longer or become more complicated. Also, if mom’s pelvis is narrow and small, it might take longer to deliver a baby. Freedom to move around and find more comfortable and less restrictive labor positions can help.
A mother’s physical and emotional state also come into play during labor. Mothers who are more relaxed tend to have shorter and easier labor and delivery. Relaxing requires techniques to cope with pain such as breathing, massage and meditation. Having support from a spouse, family member or birthing coach like a doula or midwife can also aide the labor process. Some women find comfort in a soothing environment, which may include dim lights, aromatherapy, soft music or laboring in water.
Obstetricians and birthing professionals typically find that drug interventions during labor cause increased length of labor. An epidural or other anesthesia does relax mothers and ease pain, however they may prolong labor by multiple hours in some cases. Drug intervention can cause dilation to slow, a longer pushing time during delivery and use of a vacuum or forceps. Sometimes anesthesia slows the process to the point that the doctor recommends a C-section.
However, a new study out of Thomas Jefferson University conducted on a small sample of women shows that the current guidelines for pulling the plug on a desired vaginal birth when labor is slow may be too strict. At present most OBGYNS recommend a C-section after two hours of active labor without drug intervention and three hours of active labor with an epidural. Although further studies need to be done on a larger group of women, the preliminary study found women without an IV anesthetic could go for three hours and women with an epidural could go four hours before moving to a C-section option. Allowing women to extend the length of labor resulted in 55% less C-sections. Currently, over 30% of babies in the U.S. are delivered via C-section and between 10 and 15% of them are due to adherence to the two and three hour guideline.
It’s impossible to know the length of labor before heading into childbirth. Nevertheless, worrying about it won’t change anything. The best way to approach it is with a birthing plan and a relaxed and positive attitude. And remember, a longer labor may actually help you end up with your desired outcome.