Precipitous Labor: What You Need to Know
It’s very common to hear stories about long and hard labors. It seems like everyone loves to share their long birth stories with their pregnant friends and family. First time parents are generally more likely to have a longer labor than parents who have birthed previously. However, there are many surprising variations of normal that challenge commonly held assumptions about birth. Have you heard of precipitous labor?
What is Precipitous Labor?
Precipitous labor is defined as a labor that lasts less than three hours from the start of contractions to the birth of a baby. Most people who have had a precipitous labor describe it as an incredibly intense escalation of the normal birth process. The birth process happens very quickly and intensely in a precipitous labor.
4 Surprising Facts About Precipitous Labor
1) It’s way more common than you might think!
We hear so much about the long labor stories with first babies. However, it’s pretty rare to hear someone share the story of a short and sweet birth. Also, many of us may go into our birth experience expecting it to be very long and it is possible to be totally surprised by a very short labor!
Firstly, there aren’t a ton of great studies that examine the topic of rapid labor. However, several studies show that precipitous labor (a labor lasting under 3 hours) occurs in anywhere between 2-14% of births. This number depends on the criteria used to define precipitous labor and how the statistics are reported. A good estimate might be that it occurs in about 10% of all births. In one study, precipitous labor was actually more common than prolonged labor!
Secondly, one study noted that only about 9% of precipitous labors occurred with a first birth. Multiparous (second births and beyond) parents make up the rest of the percentage of short labors.
2) Teenage pregnancy, hypertensive disorders, and smaller babies are sometimes associated with precipitous labor.
Interestingly, one study found a strong relationship between teenage pregnancy and precipitous birth. This same study also found a strong relationship between preterm birth, low birthweight, and very rapid labor. Many of these factors are interrelated, so it makes sense that we might see a pattern that increases the changes of having a very quick birth.
Also, studies show that there is a connection between hypertensive disorders and placental abruption in relationship to precipitous labor. This is another area in which there can be many interrelated conditions.
Many sources note that it’s possible that a very rapid labor can increase the risk for postpartum hemorrhage and damage to perineal tissues. But I wasn’t able to find this supported by good evidence in any study. Postpartum hemorrhage is noted as a risk in clinical observations. In fact, one of the most recent studies showed no significant difference in outcomes for the birthing parent or baby in the precipitous labor group.
3) If you have had a precipitous labor, you are more likely to birth quickly again!
If you had a very quick birth, it’s likely that you will have another! One source cites that 40% of people who had a precipitous labor went on to have a very quick birth again.
I can personally attest to this. My last two births wouldn’t technically be considered precipitous, but they moved extremely fast once active labor set in. Once you have had a very fast labor, it may be wise to prepare for that experience next time so that you aren’t caught off guard by the sudden intensity change. Also, you can use your previous experience to help plan arrangements, logistics, and support for another very rapid labor.
4) You are more likely to have a precipitous labor if you have already birthed a baby.
First time parents account for only 9% of precipitous labors. If you have had a baby before, you are much more likely to have a very quick birth. As a doula, I often see second babies follow a rapid labor pattern. Many of my clients who are having their second baby are sometimes on my radar for a very quick birth for this reason.
The Bottom Line
It’s so easy to make everything a pathology in birth. Often times, our medical system looks at anything that doesn’t follow what they consider to be textbook normal as if it is a dangerous problem. It may be that precipitous labor is just a variation of normal for some birthing people!
One observed risk of precipitous labor is postpartum hemorrhage. However, one of the hardest parts about having a very rapid labor is the extreme intensity. It can be very traumatic to have a quickly intensifying labor when you aren’t expecting that experience. It can really make you question yourself and your body’s ability to birth. A rapid labor can feel extremely overwhelming and out of control, and it can be very hard to adjust and cope with the level of intensity. These contractions tend to be hard to cope with using traditional comfort measures simply because of the strength of the process.
Also, if a person was planning on receiving an epidural, for example, there simply may not be time as the rapid labor sets on. However, rest assured that if you do find yourself in a precipitous labor, you will find your way!
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