How Long Will Labor Last

Photo by Carlo Navarro / Unsplash

How Long Will Labor Last is a common question, and can be misunderstood!  It's hard to predict how long any particular labor will last.  

Many factors influence the length of labor:

  • Whether this is a first or later baby.
  • The condition of the cervix (soft and thin or firm and thick) when progressing contractions begin.
  • The size of the baby, particularly the head, in relation to the size of the mother’s pelvis.
  • The presentation and position of the baby’s head within the mother’s body.
  • The strength and frequency of the contractions.
  • The mother’s emotional state, if she is lonely, frightened, or angry, she may have a longer labor than if she is confident, content, and calm.

A perfectly normal labor can take between 2 and 24 hours following the hours or days of pre-labor.  This measurement of time is vastly different from the medical standard within the United States, which is calculated using the Friedman curve at 1 cm per hour for a total of 10 hours.  An understanding of the stages and phases of labor better prepare us for birth, and the time it takes for a baby to be born.  Stage 1 includes Early Labor and Active Labor.

Stage 1, Phase 1: EARLY LABOR- 8-12 hours 0-4 cm dilation.  

The first phase is known as early labor.  This is from 0-4 cm dilation.  Phase 1 of early labor takes an average of 8-12 hours.

As Birth Coaches, our recommendations during this phase are to stay active, distract yourself and continue about your day until you are unable to ignore the contractions.  Once they cannot be ignored, you may choose to start tracking your contractions.  During this stage, you may lose your mucus plug or have a bloody show.

Penny Simkin suggests that Labor Progresses in Six Ways

A woman makes progress toward birth in the following ways. Note that significant dilation does not take place until step 4. The first three steps usually occur simultaneously and gradually over the last weeks of pregnancy.

1. The cervix softens (ripens). While still thick, the cervix, through the action of hormones and prostaglandins, softens and becomes more pliable.

2. The position of the cervix changes. The cervix points toward the mother’s back during most of pregnancy, then gradually moves forward. The position of the cervix is pointing toward the back, midline, or anterior (pointing toward the front).

3. The cervix thins and shortens (effaces). Usually about 1½ inches (or 3 to 4 centimeters) long, the cervix gradually shortens and becomes paper-thin. The amount of thinning (effacement) is measured in two ways:

Percentages. Zero percent means no thinning or shortening has occurred; 50 percent means the cervix is about half its former thickness; 100 percent means it is paper-thin.

Centimeters of length. Three to 4 centimeters long is the same as 0 percent effaced; 2 centimeters long is the same as 50 percent effaced; and less than 1 centimeter long means 80 to 90 percent effaced. Be sure not to confuse centimeters of cervical length with centimeters of cervical dilation!

4. The cervix opens (dilates). The opening (dilation) of the cervix is also measured in centimeters. The measurement is estimated by the caregiver who inserts two fingers through the cervix, spreads the fingers to the edges of the cervix, and estimates how far apart (in centimeters) the fingers are; it is not an exact science. Dilation usually occurs with progressing contractions, after the cervix has undergone the changes just described, but it is common for the cervix to dilate 1 to 3 centimeters before the woman has Positive Signs of labor. The cervix must open to approximately 10 centimeters (almost 4 inches) in diameter to allow the baby through.

5. The baby’s chin tucks onto his chest (this is called flexion) and his head rotates. The rotation makes it easier for the baby to pass through the birth canal. Sometimes, a babies head will mold, or stretch to pass through the birth canal.  The most favorable position for birth is usually the OA (occiput anterior) position.

6. The baby descends. The head continues to mold as necessary to fit and descends to the outside. The descent is described in terms of station, which (a) tells how far above or below the mother’s mid-pelvis the baby’s head is (or buttocks or feet, in the case of a breech presentation (b) is measured in centimeters; and (c) ranges from minus 4 to plus 4. A zero station means the baby’s head is right at the mother’s mid-pelvis. Minus 1, 2, 3, or 4 means the head is that number of centimeters above the midfloatingpelvis. The greater the plus number, the closer the baby’s head is to the outside and to being born.

Some descent usually takes place before labor begins, especially with first-time mothers. When the baby drops, it settles into the pelvis to about minus 2 or minus 1. Most of the descent occurs late in labor.

Steps 4 through 6 (dilation beyond 2 to 3 centimeters, rotation, and descent) cannot take place until the first three steps are well under way. In other words, a cervix that is firm, thick, or posterior won’t open. It simply is not ready. And a baby won’t rotate and descend significantly until the cervix is open. For many women the first three steps take place imperceptibly and gradually in late pregnancy. For others they take place in a few days, with strong or even painful non-progressing contractions, which are referred to as prelabor contractions.

Stage 1: Phase 2: ACTIVE LABOR 4-7 cm in dilation 3-5 hours (1 cm/hour)

During this phase of labor, it will be necessary to focus on each contraction, taking them one at a time, and using breath or relaxation techniques to stay focused.
The second phase of Stage 1  is known as Active Labor.  Your cervix will dilate from 4-7 cm dilation. The average 3-5 hrs or about 1 cm per hour.

Mindfullness will encourage you to concentrate on the present moment, one contraction at a time!  Thinking open thoughts like a sunrise, a water lily or the cabinet doors from the Sixth Sense movie with Bruce Willis.  Smile, breathe, remember you are birthing your baby, and this is a joyous event!

Stage 1: Transition Phase 8-10 cm in dilation 1-3 hours

Transition is a signal that you are so close to meeting your baby!

STAGE 2: Pushing

The second stage of labor includes pushing and birth.  If you are dilated to 10 cm, it doesn’t necessarily mean you will push right away.  You may need to wait until your baby is fully descended in the birth canal and past your cervix.  The Journal of Midwifery and Women’s Health describes a resting stage when a woman is dilated 10 cm but does not yet feel the urge to push.  This may even be up to 1 hour after full dilation.  This information is crucial to a first time mom, who may feel confused if a provider says, "time to push" but she doesn't yet feel the urge.  Your body will inform you when it's time to push!  

Presentation refers to the part of the baby, top of the head (the vertex), brow, face, buttocks, feet, shoulders that is lowest in the uterus. The vertex almost always presents first; problems occur in delivery if any of the others present first. Position refers to the placement of the presenting part within the mother’s pelvis. The most common positions are:

- OA (occiput anterior): The back of the baby’s head (the occiput) points toward the mother’s front (anterior).

- OT (occiput transverse): The back of the baby’s head points toward the mother’s side (transverse).

- OP (occiput posterior): The back of the baby’s head points toward the mother’s back (posterior).

Although babies can and do change position during labor and during the pushing (second) stage, at birth the OA position is much more common than OP or OT. When the baby is in the OP position in labor, with the back of his head toward the mother’s back, labor is sometimes backache. There are many other reasons for back pain in labor, and you should not assume the baby is OP just because the mother has back pain, prolonged, and the mother may experience intense contractions.  When you are ready to push, your body will release a boost of adrenaline to help assist you!

When your baby arrives, the question, "How long will this labor take" will finally be answered.  Sometimes it is a shock how quickly the event took place, or for many, they are surprised that their energy was able to endure even after hours, or days to bring life into the world.  There is nothing more intoxicating than a newborn baby laid on your chest, and the reassuring sweet sound of their first cry.  
3rd Stage of Labor - Afterbirth

The third stage is the afterbirth, delivery of the placenta, which is usually accompanied by a golden hour bonding with your baby.  This time can be shared skin to skin with both partners and is the first connection physically and emotionally.  The result of a baby just may make you forget how long you labored.  Understanding these phases and stages ahead of time will prepare you for the labor that truly is a labor of time and love!  

For comfort measures, and instruction how to focus during labor, visit Birth Made Mindful for our Birth and Fourth Trimester Courses.  

Article by Sarah Ziroll

Sarah’s greatest joy is her family: her husband and boys.  In her free time, she loves escaping in a great book, “Sarahnading” on her violin, singing, creating crafts and diy projects, hiking the gorgeous mountains of Utah and skiing.  Sarah is a Birth Coach and Certified Birth Doula.  She’s had 3 amazing births and is passionate to help you achieve the birth of your dreams.

Sarah Ziroll

Sarah Ziroll