What is Precipitous Labor?

Medically Reviewed by Traci C. Johnson, MD on April 19, 2023
4 min read

If you’re pregnant and nearing your due date, you may wonder what your labor will be like. Since every mother is unique and every pregnancy is different, labor can last for hours or even days. Usually, labor ranges from 6 to 18 hours from the very early stage until birth. 

If your labor is faster than the normal range, it’s called precipitous labor. Most moms hope for a quick and easy labor, but precipitous labor may be too fast and can lead to health concerns for both you and your baby.

Stage One. The first stage of labor is when your cervix softens, shortens, and thins out, which is called effacement, and opens, which is called dilation. This stage allows your baby to move into the birth canal. Contractions help this process along in preparation for the delivery of your baby. 

The first stage of labor can last for hours or days for a first pregnancy, but it is usually shorter for every delivery after that. The first stage of labor has three different parts:

Early labor — Your cervix begins to dilate and opens. You might also notice a little bit of fluid come out of your vagina. This is the mucus plug that covers the opening to your cervix when you're pregnant. You may spend most of this stage of labor at home since your contractions start out weak and irregular, gradually growing in intensity and frequency.

Try to listen to your body and relax during this time. It's alright to do some light activity, like going for a walk or taking a bath. But it's also fine to rest. Try to eat small meals and drink plenty of water.

Active labor — Your cervix goes from 6 to 10 centimeters as your contractions are closer together. You may feel nauseous and have cramps in your legs during this time. If you haven't gone to your hospital or delivery facility yet, do so now. 

If you don't need to be in a specific position for the doctors to monitor you and your baby, try to stand or sit up so that your contractions work with gravity to push down on your cervix. Your water may break during this stage of labor. If it does, your contractions will quickly grow even closer together and more intense. 

Transitional Labor — This is often the hardest and most painful stage of labor. Your contractions will last 60 to 90 seconds. You'll probably feel pressure on your lower back. It is normal to feel overwhelmed, frustrated, tired, sick, and sweaty during this stage of labor.

Stage Two. At this stage, your baby moves into the birth canal once your cervix is properly dilated, and you can begin pushing. You may feel an intense urge to use the bathroom, like in a bowel movement. With each contraction, you will push until your baby is born. 

You may only have to push a couple of times, or you may push for a couple of hours. Each labor and delivery is different, and a lot depends on the size of your baby and their position. You may be asked by your doctor to push gently or not at all at some point. This allows your body time to stretch instead of tear.

Stage Three. Once your baby is born, your uterus continues to contract until the placenta is delivered. This usually happens 5 to 30 minutes after your baby is born, but it can last for an hour. 

Recovery. Now it’s time for you to recover from your labor and delivery. If you want to breastfeed your baby, you can do so immediately after birth. Recovery is very important after birth, so take time to rest and adjust to life with your baby. 

Signs of precipitous labor include:

  • The sudden onset of very intense contractions
  • Very little time between contractions for recovery
  • Strong urge to push, which often feels like the need for a bowel movement

Precipitous labor is usually around 3 hours from the first real contractions until the birth of your baby. You might think that progressing through labor so rapidly would be easier, but it’s not. You don’t have time to think, and you might be caught off guard by the speed at which your contractions progress.

Additionally, your body doesn’t have time to stretch slowly and prepare for your baby’s birth. This may lead to tearing. And if you live far from the hospital, you may not even make it in time to deliver your baby and end up delivering in the car instead. 

If you suspect you might be in precipitous labor and can’t make it to your hospital quickly, stay home and call for help. It’s important to remember that if you previously experienced precipitous labor, you probably will again in future pregnancies.