Many expecting moms wonder how long they can anticipate their natural birth to take. You may be concerned about the amount of time because of the pain, or just be so eager to meet the little one that you can’t wait. So how long does it take for a natural birth? We’ll explore that today.
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A Wide Range of Normal: Phases of Labor
It’s impossible to predict exactly how long any given birth will take. Births with an epidural, in general, take a little longer than births without. The time spent in labor can vary widely from woman to woman, depending on factors such as:
- How many babies you have had
- Baby’s position in the pelvis
- The strength of your contractions
- Your ability to stay relaxed and avoid tension
So, there’s a wide range of what’s considered “normal.” That being said, there are still some general time ranges that can help you set realistic expectations for your upcoming natural birth.
Prelabor contractions are called Braxton-Hicks contractions. While they don’t bring about dilation of the cervix, these practice contractions help to ripen, efface, and move the cervix forward. You will likely sense a tightening or pressure that lasts for 30 to 40 seconds, coming every 10 to 20 minutes. Typically, prelabor will last for less than a day.
Some women will experience a longer-than-average prelabor. It’s considered prolonged if it lasts for longer than 24 hours.
How Long Does Labor Last: Labor
Latent Phase of Labor:
The latent phase of labor, also known as early labor, begins when your contraction pattern becomes regular and the contractions start to efface and dilate the cervix. It’s the longest phase of labor — a period where the cervix is dilating from 0 up to 6 cm.
You may feel like early labor is crawling along slowly. Studies have found that it takes an average of 1 hour 48 minutes for a 1st-time mom to dilate from 3-4 cm, and another 1 hour 18 minutes to dilate from 4-5 cm. In total, early labor can last 9-11 hours for a first-time mom and 5-7 hours for a woman who has given birth before.
Early labor is typically defined as prolonged if it lasts for longer than 20 hours for a first-time mom; 14 hours for an experienced mom (2).
Active Phase of Labor:
The active phase of labor includes active labor and transition. This phase begins at about the time when cervical dilation starts to pick up in pace, which is usually somewhere around 6 cm dilation. In this phase, the cervix will dilate from 6 cm to 10 cm. How long it takes to dilate up to 10 cm is unique to each woman, but usually goes like this:
How Long Does it Take to Dilate From 1 to 10?
As compared to the sluggish pace of early labor, it only takes an average of 48 minutes for a first-time mom to dilate from 5 cm to 6 cm. Dilation from 6 cm to 7 cm goes even faster — an average of 36 minutes. At 7 cm dilation, it’s not long till birth. From there on out, most women will dilate about 1 cm every 30 minutes until the cervix is finally 10 cm dilated. In total, active labor when the cervix dilates from 5 cm to 10 cm can last about 4.5 hours for a first-time mom and 2.5 hours for a mom who has given birth before.
A quick heads-up: If you’re beyond 6 cm dilated and haven’t dilated at all in 4 hours, your doctor might recommend breaking your water or try speeding things up with pitocin. Be sure to learn all about these options in your natural childbirth class.
How Long Does Active Labor Last: Pushing
The pushing phase begins when the cervix is 10 cm dilated and ends when your baby is born. Pushing can take anywhere from 1-3 hours for a first-time mom. For a mom who has given birth before, the pushing phase is usually over within 0-2 hours.
In a natural birth, the pushing phase is usually about 1 hour shorter than a birth with epidural analgesia (3). However, a large baby or a baby in a posterior position can lengthen the pushing phase, even in a natural birth.
How Long Does Labor Last: Separation of Placenta
After baby is born, the placenta will detach from the uterus. With a few gentle pushes from mom, it will come sliding on out of the birth canal. (Sounds gross…and sorry, but it kind of is.) In a hospital setting, this happens within 18 minutes of giving birth, ideally (4).
How Long Does Labor Last: Very Fast Labors
Occasionally, a woman’s entire labor will last only 6 hours or less. This is known as a precipitate birth. It’s easy to imagine that a very fast birth would be ideal — let’s just get this over with, right?! However, precipitous birth comes with its challenges.
In a rapid birth, your labor may begin with contractions that are already 3 to 4 minutes apart. You may blow past early labor entirely, and suddenly find yourself thrust into the longer, more powerful contractions of active labor. This can be both physically and emotionally challenging, and you may suddenly feel unprepared and panicky. If this happens to you, stay calm! Focus on the relaxation and breathing techniques that you’ve been practicing all along, and have confidence in your ability to cope!
With that said, fast labors are rare for first-time moms. It’s much more realistic to anticipate a slow and steady labor. Know that there’s no ideal length of labor, long or short. This is your body and your baby, and this birth will be unique to the two of you. All told,
- Moms who have given birth before should anticipate a labor that lasts at least 8 hours.
- First-time moms should plan to be in labor for at least 15 hours. Wrap your mind around it. Prepare for natural childbirth by practicing plenty of coping tools. Condition your mind and body for the athletic event that you’re about to undertake. And remember, YOU CAN DO THIS!
Kopa Birth’s online childbirth classes allow you to prepare for a natural childbirth from the comfort of your own home, 24/7. Enroll today in our free online childbirth class to learn more about preparing for a natural hospital birth.
- Simkin, P., Whalley, J., Keppler, A. (2010). Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn. 4th Edition. Meadowbrook Press, NY.
- Friedman EA, Sachtleben MR. Amniotomy and the course of labor. Obstet Gynecol 1963;22:755–70. [PubMed] [Obstetrics & Gynecology]
- Safe prevention of the primary cesarean delivery. Obstetric Care Consensus No. 1. American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists. Obstet Gynecol 2014;123:693–711.
- Magann, E.F., Evans, S., Cauhan, S.P., Lanneau, G., Fisk, A.D., Morrison, J.C. (2005). The length of the third stage of labor and the risk of postpartum hemorrhage. Obstet Gynecol. 105(2): 290-3.