What to Know About a Fast Labor and Birth

A very fast labor and birth (also known as “precipitous” labor), which is a labor and birth lasting less than three hours after contractions are established, seems like every pregnant person’s dream. After all, I can’t think of anyone I know who longs to spend hours and hours in labor! But a very fast labor has drawbacks, too. Many people who have experienced precipitous labor (myself included) will tell you it felt overwhelming and they wish they would have had a little more time to ease in (and out) of labor and birth. 

Even if you have a family history of fast labor or prior births that were fast, there’s no way to predict with any certainty how long or quick your labor and birth will be. For many, learning about the possibilities that can take place during labor provides increased feelings of preparedness. 

Precipitous labor is often described as intense, overwhelming, and without a break. Hallmark signs of a very fast labor include contractions that are back-to-back and an early urge to push. You may not know you’re in a fast labor until you’re there, especially if it’s your first birth experience. If you think your labor is speeding up faster than a typical labor, call your care provider right away. In some cases, depending on what you’re experiencing, you may proceed directly to your place of birth.

Having a pre-birth plan in place is especially helpful in the event of a very fast labor. A pre-birth plan includes information on who to call (your care provider, your doula, your other birth support persons), where to go when in labor, and any relevant care plans for animals or other children that need to be set in motion. Be sure to share this plan with your partner and/or anyone who will be supporting you in the time leading up to and during labor. 

During a precipitous labor, there often is not time to administer an epidural. It takes around an hour from the time of epidural request for an epidural to be placed. Most of this time is due to the need for IV fluids prior to placing an epidural. No matter what the course of your labor and birth, it helps to learn a variety of coping skills for contractions, including non-pharmalogic (non drug-based) comfort measures. When you take a quality childbirth class, like those offered from Lamaze, you will learn about and practice the many ways to find comfort in labor. Techniques like the use of breathing patterns, moving around in labor, and finding different positions for pushing and giving birth can be very helpful during a very fast labor. You may also find that some of the things you had learned about and hopes to use during your labor, like music, aromatherapy, and guided relaxation, will no longer be as useful during a precipitous labor. 

My third birth was very fast. I was at 41 weeks and contractions finally found a pattern. I noticed at home that they became intense fairly quickly (faster than my previous two labors). The ride to the hospital was particularly uncomfortable as I labored in a kneeling position in the back seat. Once at the hospital and checked into a room, I went from intense contractions and 4cm dilated to water breaking and bearing down with an urge to push — and then a baby in my arms in about 30 minutes. There was no time for my doula to do anything other than take pictures and offer words of encouragement. Once I was holding my baby, I was in a state of shock, saying “I just had a baby?” I remember describing the experience as being on a runaway train — no one could stop it. It was exhilarating, but my brain was stuck playing catch up on what just happened. 

The majority of precipitous labors happen without major complications. Emotionally, a parent may feel as though they were unprepared or surprised by the speed of events, but are generally able to cope with and move through these feelings. In some cases, however, a very fast labor can present complications, including:

  • heavy bleeding or hemorrhaging 
  • tearing or lacerations to the cervix, vaginal tissues, or perineum (tearing can happen in any vaginal birth, but a precipitous birth may stretch tissues quickly instead of slowly, which may increase the likelihood of a tear or more severe tear)
  • shock

Though the media would have you believe that precipitous labor means that many babies are born in the car on the way to the hospital, the reality is that only about 8 in 10,000 births happen this way. Even if you have a very fast labor, statistics are on your side for safely getting to your chosen place of birth to have your baby. 

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