Precipitous Labor

Precipitous labor is when a baby is born within three hours of regular contractions starting. No one knows for sure what causes it. Some factors may increase a person’s chances of precipitous labor, such as having a fast labor before, high blood pressure or having a small baby.

What is precipitous labor?

Precipitous labor (or rapid labor) describes labor that’s quick and short. If you have a precipitous labor, your baby is born within three hours of regular contractions starting. Contractions are when your uterine muscles tighten and relax to help push your baby out. Typical labor lasts between six and 18 hours on average. While fast labor might sound better than labor that lasts several hours (or days), precipitous labor comes with risks to both the birth parent and baby.


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How fast is precipitous labor?

Precipitous labor is when your baby comes within three hours of your first regular contraction. Some healthcare providers consider precipitous labor to be anything less than five hours.

What are the signs of precipitous labor?

The symptoms of rapid labor vary. However, it’s likely to include one of the following:

  • Contractions start suddenly and come very close together right away. Unlike typical labor, there isn’t a break between contractions.
  • Continuously painful and strong contractions with little to no build up in intensity level.
  • You feel an urge to push. Some people describe it as feeling like you need to poop.

With normal labor, contractions start slowly and are weak. They are hard to predict and may occur at irregular intervals. This process can last hours or even days. In precipitous labor, the slow and weak contractions never happen. A person experiences fast, intense contractions almost from the get-go.


What causes precipitous labor?

No one knows for sure what causes precipitous labor, however, some factors may increase your chances for rapid labor.

What are risk factors for precipitous labor?

Several factors can increase your risk for precipitous labor:

  • You’ve given birth before.
  • You’ve had precipitous labor before.
  • Your baby is on the smaller side.
  • Your uterus is exceptionally strong and efficient at contractions.
  • Your birth canal is soft and flexible.
  • You have high blood pressure.
  • Your labor is induced with prostaglandins.
  • You’ve been exposed to certain drugs such as cocaine.

Talk to your healthcare provider if you think you might be at risk for precipitous labor. They can review your medical history and help determine if you need to take precautions.


What are the complications of precipitous labor?

Rapid labor is unplanned and not how most people expect their birthing experience to happen. This loss of control can be hard to handle, both physically and emotionally. Because it all happens so fast, you may have trouble getting to the hospital and be too late for pain medication or an epidural. This can make for a scary and chaotic delivery.

Other complications for the birth parent include:

Difficulties for the baby include breathing in meconium, infection due to delivery in an unsterile area or injury.

Is precipitous labor more painful?

There’s a chance precipitous labor is more painful, but it depends on several factors. Some reasons it may hurt more include:

  • You won’t have time to get an epidural or other pain medication.
  • Your contractions are intense.
  • You don’t get a break between contractions.
  • You’ve torn or injured your vagina during delivery.
  • You forget breathing techniques and aren’t able to relax.

What should I do if I think I’m in precipitous labor?

You may not be able to control how fast your labor is, but there are some things you can do to cope with precipitous labor:

  • Call your obstetrician immediately. If you need immediate help, call 911.
  • Think happy, calm thoughts and practice deep breathing.
  • Make sure someone is with you at all times if possible.
  • Try to keep your area clean or stay in a clean area.
  • Lay down on your left side.

How do I prepare for fast labor?

How quickly you go into labor is usually out of your control. If you’ve had precipitous labor, you may be wondering how you can prepare. The best thing you can do to prepare for a fast labor is to have your hospital bags packed and ready to go several weeks before your due date. You should pack things you’d need if an emergency delivery is required. These items could include hand sanitizer or other antibacterials, several towels and blankets, diapers and extra clothes.

Can I be induced to avoid precipitous labor?

If your healthcare provider feels you’re at extremely high risk for precipitous labor, they may suggest an early induction. This is up to you and your provider based on your health history and other factors unique to your pregnancy. Inductions come with risks as well. It’s best to discuss your options with your provider if you’re concerned about precipitous labor.

Is precipitous labor common?

One study shows that precipitous labor occurs in about 3% of all births. You’re more likely to deliver your baby preterm if you have precipitous labor.

A note from Cleveland Clinic

Precipitous labor can make your birthing experience even more unpredictable than you thought. While a super quick labor and delivery might seem nice, there can be complications for both you and your baby. If you’re worried about having precipitous labor, talk to your obstetrician about your medical history to see if you’re at risk. Precipitous labor isn’t very common, but it’s always good to be prepared for it anyway.

Care at Cleveland Clinic
Medically Reviewed

Last reviewed on 10/07/2022.

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