Precipitous labor is labor that lasts for less than three hours. Fast labor means less time in pain, and you get to hold your baby sooner. It also means more intensity and less preparation time.
Ashley’s contractions started at 5:30 A.M. While she and her husband were waiting for her parents to come over to watch the birth of their first granddaughter, her body had already started pushing. As soon as her parents arrived, they rushed to the car in between contractions to get to the hospital. When they made it to registration, Ashley had to lift herself out of the wheelchair to deal with her body pushing.
The nurse ran around the desk and wheeled her to the maternity ward, where the baby was born 15 minutes later.
Sounds like a scene from a movie, right? Most of us will never experience labor like that, but approximately two percent of women do.
Jessica, a mother of three in Arkansas, said, “I’d like to have a peaceful birth, not end up in chaos, but it always does! Mine are just kind of a circus every time.”
She described the birth of her third child, which was the shortest at two and a half hours, as the most intense of the three. “That period of time, that I thought I was going to die, lasted longer and was more intense.” She concluded that the increased intensity is because, “the same amount of work needs to be done in a shorter amount of time.”
Besides a more intense labor, there are a few other downsides to precipitous labor, such as tearing and an increased risk of post-partum hemorrhage, or ruptured blood vessels. Additionally, there’s a chance that the medical team may not be prepared. While Jessica’s medical team was prepared for the speed of her third birth, the staff at the hospital she went to for the first birth were definitely not ready. She said, “It was very much chaos on their end. They were completely shocked that I was all the way dilated.”
However, some women’s bodies work gradually, over days or even weeks, concluding with a fast birth.
Tanya of Louisiana said that she was eight centimeters dilated when she and her husband arrived at a bed and breakfast to be near her midwife, but she had only had mild Braxton Hicks contractions throughout the week. “It really felt easy because it was just getting through the last couple of centimeters. It was intense, but it was so fast, and I had the hot water [from being in a bath].”
So why do some women experience fast labor?
Certain factors seem to be correlated, including multiple babies, a large pelvis, previous precipitous labor, and a small baby in a good position (Ladewig). Research shows that women who have given birth before are more likely to have a precipitous labor than a first-time mother.
Every woman’s labor will be different, but there are some clear signs of rapid labor. ¾ if your contractions start off intense and close together, giving you little to recover in between them, or if you experience one continuous contraction. Other signs that birth is imminent are if you start to feel overwhelmed, if you say, “I can’t do this,” or “I’m scared,” or if your body begins bearing down and you feel strong pressure (like a bowel movement).
Even labor with every child might be different. Lauren from Virginia didn’t even believe she was in labor with her third child when contractions began. “It was a month before my due date, and my first two children came on their due date or a few days before. I didn’t think, at all, that I was in labor even though I had done this twice before.”
Once she finally realized it was the real deal, she drove herself to the hospital while her husband stayed to wait for her parents to arrive to watch their other two daughters. “As I drove, I was punching the steering wheel because the contractions were so strong. But I still thought I had time- I was in labor with my other two girls for 7 hours and 6 hours, respectively.”
By the time Lauren got to the hospital, she was in full-blown active labor. She was checked by the triage nurse who found she was already fully-dilated. Twenty-five minutes after arriving to the hospital, her third daughter was born. “My husband didn’t even make it. He arrived to the hospital 15 minutes after she was born. It was less than 2 hours after labor started that she was in my arms, and I definitely thought I would have time to get an epidural. I never dreamed I would push once and she would be out.”
There aren’t too many ways to control the speed of labor, but some suggest that laying on your left side can help slow things down. Also, refusing cervical exams may be key. During her first birth, Jessica saw a nurse for an exam when she arrived at the hospital. “As she’s checking me, that broke my water.”
While the research seems to be mixed about whether exams can rupture the membranes, doing an exam during a fast labor may be pointless anyway. Your birth team should be able to tell your stage of labor by your behavior and the patterns of your contractions.
If you suspect that your birth will be fast, the mothers I interviewed offered suggestions on being prepared (as much as you can be):
- Attending a birth class with your partner can be extremely helpful. Samantha, a mother of two in Washington, whose last birth was only two hours, said, “The more I learned from birthing classes and positive mothers, the more I felt capable of managing whatever came.” Also, you and your partner can read up on emergency labor, in case you have to give birth at home.
- If you are heading to a hospital or birth center, make sure you have a bag with necessities ready to go. You don’t want to spend the precious time you have trying to pack one! Don’t forget about the car – have it stocked with towels, blankets, a gallon of clean water, and a bulb syringe or nasal aspirator.
- Jessica had her birth plan on a notecard the second time around. Since there isn’t time for interventions, she wrote down other things that would inevitably come up, such as delayed cord clamping. In addition, having a plan for your partner is crucial to make them aware of things you need or want because it can be difficult to communicate well as labor progresses.
- One mother pointed out that contractions can slow down in the car, making parents second-guess their decision to leave. Pick out a spot near the birthplace to walk around, such as a mall or a park, until you feel more certain about the progress.
- Be sure that family members are prepared. Even though you don’t know the exact moment you will go into labor before it happens (unless you have a scheduled c-section) you should have a plan in place in case you find yourself experiencing a faster than normal labor.
- Always have a backup plan for additional childcare. If your labor suddenly takes off like a shot and your baby is coming RIGHT NOW, you want to be sure that your other children have a safe place to go at the last minute, even if it’s just a friend’s house until family can come and take over the long term child care while you are at the hospital.
- Be confident in your stages of labor. Lauren remembers the nurse at the hospital not believing she was in active labor and leaving her in the triage room for over 20 minutes. “I couldn’t even get myself into the hospital gown because I was in so much pain. I finally opened the door, dripping blood down my legs, and yelled for a nurse to please come check me. As soon as she did she said, ‘Oh, you are fully dilated. I’m moving you to delivery.’ I wanted to scream, That’s what I told you!”
And finally, when it’s all over, pat yourself on the back! Women who go through fast labor have to take a marathon and turn it into a sprint.