What Is Precipitous Labor?

Table of Contents
View All
Table of Contents

Precipitous labor, also called rapid labor, is when labor and delivery take less than three hours after contractions first begin. On average, labor takes anywhere from six to 18 hours. In some cases, labor can begin and progress quickly. Several factors can affect your chances of having precipitous labor.

a mother giving birth

David Aaron Troy / Getty Images

Stages of Labor

There are three stages of labor:

  • First stage: This stage 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. During early labor, the cervix (opening of the birth canal) opens to 4 centimeters and becomes shorter. It opens up to 7 centimeters during active labor. Early labor can last hours to days, while active labor usually lasts about four to eight hours. As you move into the second stage of labor, your contractions last about 60 to 90 seconds and come every two to three minutes.
  • Second stage: This is where you deliver your baby. At this stage, the cervix is fully open 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.
  • Third stage: 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.

The length of each stage varies by person and depends on your pregnancy and whether you have given birth before. In many cases, the speed of labor depends on:

  • If it is your first vaginal birth
  • Your pelvis size and shape
  • Your age
  • Your weight
  • The position of the baby
  • The strength and timing of contractions
  • If you use medications to induce labor
  • If you use analgesics or epidurals

Signs and Symptoms

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 quickly and allow no time for recovery in between contractions.

You may also have an urge to push that comes on quickly and without warning. It is often not accompanied by contractions because your cervix dilates very quickly during precipitous labor.

Signs that labor is beginning include:

  • "Lightening," or the feeling of the baby dropping lower in the abdomen
  • Loss of the mucous plug
  • Membrane rupture, or "water breaking"
  • Contractions

Risk Factors

Precipitous labor can happen to anyone, but certain factors may increase your chances of a quick birth:

  • Younger age at the time of delivery, especially in the teenage years
  • Mothers who have had previous vaginal births
  • Preterm deliveries
  • High blood pressure (hypertension)
  • Lower birth weight of the baby
  • Placental abruption
  • Fertility treatment
  • Intrauterine growth restrictions
  • Induction
  • Prior pregnancy losses

Complications

While a quick delivery may seem like a good thing, a number of complications can arise from giving birth too quickly. Rapid vaginal deliveries can result in traumatic injuries for the mother, such as:

  • Perineal lacerations or tears
  • Postpartum hemorrhage
  • Retained placenta
  • Hemotransfusion

For the infant, the major risks of a rapid birth are prematurity, low birth weight, or traumatic birth injuries.

Too Quick, Too Soon?

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.

A Word From Verywell

The delivery process is a major concern for many people. Especially if it is your first birth, you may wonder how it will feel, how long it will take, or when it will happen. While a quick delivery may sound like a good thing, there are a number of complications you and your baby could experience as a result.

If you are pregnant and have had precipitous deliveries in the past or fall into any of the high-risk groups for a speedy delivery, be sure to include that information when discussing birth plans with your doctor.

If you think you are in labor or you begin experiencing sudden, sharp pains at any point in your pregnancy, call your doctor or visit a hospital immediately.

Was this page helpful?
Article 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? Updated September 1, 2017.

  2. Abalos E, Oladapo OT, Chamillard M, et al. Duration of spontaneous labour in 'low-risk' women with 'normal' perinatal outcomes: A systematic reviewEur J Obstet Gynecol Reprod Biol. 2018;223:123-132. doi:10.1016/j.ejogrb.2018.02.026

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

  4. 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.