What Is Precipitous Labor?

And who is more likely to give birth within hours of initial contractions

Precipitous labor, or rapid labor, is when you give birth less than three hours after contractions first begin. This is much faster than average labor, which usually takes six to 18 hours.

a mother giving birth

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Several factors can affect your chances of precipitous labor. Though it can happen to anyone, it is more likely in young mothers, those delivering prematurely, and those who have already given birth vaginally.

This article discusses exactly what defines precipitous labor and how it differs from typical labor. It also outlines the signs that it is happening, who is at greater risk the rapid progression of labor, and potential complications.

If you think you are in rapid labor, call your healthcare provider immediately and get to the hospital or birthing location you have planned. If you don't think you can make it there in time, call 911.

Progression of Precipitous Labor

Normal labor slowly proceeds over the course of thee stages. With precipitous labor, you can fly through the first and second stages to deliver your baby in a fraction of the typical time.

This may sound like an ideal situation in some respects. Unfortunately, though, this condensed labor and delivery can put additional stress on you and your child. As for pain, it may occur over fewer hours, but the intensity can be much greater with rapid labor and delivery.

Labor Stages

To understand what your body may experience during precipitous labor, it helps to be familiar with typical labor and the three stages:

  • Stage one: This is broken into two phases: early labor and active labor. Contractions begin, growing stronger and more frequent as you move from early to active labor. Over the course of several hours to several days, the cervix opens wider. Active labor usually lasts about four to eight hours. Contractions progress to between 60 and 90 seconds every two to three minutes.
  • Stage two: This is when the cervix is fully dilated at 10 centimeters, and it's time for the baby to be delivered. You may feel pressure and the urge to push as contractions move the baby down toward the birth canal. This stage can last between 20 minutes and several hours.
  • Stage three: About five to 15 minutes after your baby is born, you will push out the placenta that nurtured your baby during pregnancy. You may still feel contractions during this phase, which usually lasts about 30 minutes.

In cases of precipitous labor, you move through the stages of labor and to delivery in three hours or less.

You might start with a period of light contractions, but at some point, they transition to intense, back-to-back contractions. In this situation, you may not even get a break between them. Accompanying the contractions, you may feel a need to push.

Because labor progresses so quickly, there isn't time to administer an epidural, which would relieve some pain from labor and childbirth. Breathing techniques can help you through the intense period.

Signs of Rapid Labor

The signs and symptoms of precipitous labor are the same as traditional labor, only they happen quicker and may be more forceful. Specifically, you may experience sudden, intense pains or contractions that progress unexpectedly and allow no time for recovery in between contractions.

The urge to push usually comes on suddenly and forcefully. Your cervix will dilate very quickly during precipitous labor.

In addition to the increasing intensity of contractions, these points of labor may come on quickly

  • "Lightening," or the feeling of the baby dropping lower in the abdomen
  • Loss of the mucous plug, a thick piece of mucus that blocks the opening to your cervix and keeps out bacteria until delivery
  • Water breaking, when the amniotic sac that cushions a fetus tears open and the fluid flow out of your vagina.

Precipitous Labor Causes and Risk Factors

The exact cause of precipitous labor is unknown. It can happen to anyone, but certain factors may increase your chances of a quick birth:

  • Being in your teens or early 20s at the time of delivery
  • Having a previous vaginal birth
  • Preeclampsia, having high blood pressure after 20 weeks of pregnancy
  • A baby with a low birth, which refers to any newborn weighing less than 5 pounds, 8 ounces
  • Placental abruption, when the placenta (which supplies blood to a fetus) separates from the wall of the uterus prematurely

Complications

In addition to causing emotional stress, precipitous labor can cause physical strain on mother and baby. In fact, a number of complications could possibly arise during rapid labor and the sudden birth.

Among the problems that can occur are traumatic injuries for the mother, such as:

  • Vaginal tears: Also known as perineal lacerations, tears to the perineum can lead to infections or problems with incontinence or painful intercourse after childbirth.
  • Excessive bleeding: The medical term for this is postpartum hemorrhage (PPH). This condition is usually treatable, but it can lead to shock or, in rare cases, death.
  • Retained placenta: During the third stage of labor, you should expel the placenta completely within 30 minutes. Following rapid labor, the placenta may not be delivered. This can lead to a severe infection or life-threatening complications.
  • Blood transfusion: Following excessive bleeding, you might require a blood transfusion. While this is generally a safe procedure, there are some possible complications.

Your infant, too, may face some dangerous risks including being born prematurely, having a low birth weight, or suffering traumatic birth injuries.

Preterm Birth and Rapid Labor

Precipitous labor is associated with higher rates of preterm birth. In fact, about 7.3% of people who had quick labors delivered preterm babies compared to 2.3% of people who experienced labors of average duration.

Preparation

You can't predict if you are going to progress through labor rapidly when the time comes. However, if you fall into any of the high-risk groups discussed above, mention that to your healthcare provider.

They may have special advice for you that should be accounted for when crafting your birthing plans. Depending on your situation, they may also discuss the possibility of early induction.

Be sure to have a bag and other necessities pre-packed early so you are ready to go if precipitous labor does end up occurring.

If you don't have someone at home who can be ready to help you at a moment's notice, reach out to a friend or loved one well in advance who can do so, if needed. Share a list of the signs of rapid labor, as well as your healthcare provider's contact information and the location of your hospital/birthing center.

A Word From Verywell

Labor is a difficult process, but the slow and gradual build-up is a good thing for you and your baby because it prepares you both for the intensity and physical strain of childbirth. With precipitous labor, you don't get that preparation period.

Getting medical health during labor or immediately following delivery, then, is important to ensure that you and your newborn are cared for and checked for complications.

Frequently Asked Questions

  • Is precipitous labor normal?

    Rapid labor is not typical, but it isn't always concerning. It can be due to a pregnant person being young or having had a vaginal birth before, for example. However, it can also be a sign of dangerous conditions like preeclampsia and placental abruption.

  • Is precipitous labor more painful than normal labor?

    It often is. There are several reasons for this, including very intense contractions and progressing through labor so fast that there is no time to opt for pain management.

3 Sources
Verywell Health uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. National Institutes of Health. What are the stages of labor?

  2. Suzuki S. Clinical significance of precipitous laborJ Clin Med Res. 2015;7(3):150–153. doi:10.14740/jocmr2058w

  3. Madonna, L, Markenson G, St. Marie, Peter. Impact of a rapid second stage of labor on subsequent pregnancy outcomes. Obstet Gynecol. 2016;(127)144. doi:10.1097/01.AOG.0000483577.15540.64.

By Rachael Zimlich, BSN, RN
 Rachael is a freelance healthcare writer and critical care nurse based near Cleveland, Ohio.