Every pregnant woman wonders, “How long will my labor last?” Friends and families are often quick to share their labor stories, ranging from, “My labor was so quick and easy!” to “It took forever.” It can leave many expectant moms wondering just how long labor should really take.
The length of labor varies greatly from woman to woman, which is entirely normal, but we do have some general ranges for how long a mom should expect to be in labor.
The first stage of labor is when a woman’s cervix begins to open up, or dilate. The estimated time for what was considered normal was originally based on work done in the 1950s looking at large groups of laboring women. Based on this work, we used to think latent labor should take no longer than 20 hours in women having their first baby and 14 hours for women who’ve given birth before.
We also used to think that once active labor was reached, the cervix should be expected to dilate about 1 to 1.5 centimeters an hour.
Based on these definitions, obstetric providers used to diagnose abnormal labor as those taking longer than these above-mentioned times. Newer data, however, has led to big revisions in what we consider normal.
Most obstetric providers now believe that latent labor should not have a time limit, and as long as progress is being made and mom are baby are safe it should be allowed to progress. This means that latent labor for some women may take days!
A new definition for “active labor”
Another change to labor management is that active labor is now defined as when the cervix is at least 6 centimeters dilated for most women. Many practitioners used to say active labor was when a woman’s cervix was just 4 centimeters open, but we now know this is too early and led to some unnecessary C-sections.
Once in active labor, many women will in fact dilate 1 to 1.5 centimeters an hour, but it can be normal for this to take longer.
The second stage of labor is when a woman’s cervix is completely dilated and she begins pushing. Again, older data was much more restrictive. We used to say it was abnormal for this phase of labor to take longer than 3 hours in women having their first baby or 2 hours in women who’ve delivered vaginally before. We now know that this stage of labor can take up to 4 hours in some women, especially those having their first baby and with the use of an epidural.
The final and third stage of labor is when the placenta delivers. In general, most women will complete this stage in just a few minutes after their baby arrives. If this stage lasts longer than 30 minutes, this is usually considered abnormal, and additional procedures may be needed to help get the placenta out.
The final word on how long labor should take
All told, it is hard to predict how long a woman’s labor will take, especially if it is her first baby. She may have a long latent phase only to suddenly progress into active labor quickly and delivery shortly thereafter. Keep in mind that induced labor often takes longer too, since it will take time to even get a woman into labor before her latent phase of labor even begins.
The bottom line is that a woman should be allowed to continue to labor as long as she and her baby are doing well, and progress is being made—even if that progress may seem like it isn’t quick enough for well-meaning waiting family and friends! The good news is that once you’ve had your first baby, most labors after this tend to be shorter.
Reviewed by Dr. Diana Huang, May 2020
- There are three stages of labor.
- The first stage of labor is when the cervix is dilating, and the length of this stage varies widely among women.
- The second stage of labor is when a woman is pushing, and this can take up to 4 hours for some moms.
- First labors usually take longer.
- We have new definitions for how long these stages should take, so don’t worry about older standards.