I was blessed with having fast labors.
Or so I am told…
Each of my three children was born in less than 3 hours from the start of the first contraction. It’s called a precipitous labor and it only occurs in 3% of births. It might seem like a small number but it’s hard to predict who will have one, and if you’re unprepared for it, it can lead to a very traumatic experience.
Here’s what you should know about the trauma of a precipitous labor.
The Physical Trauma
While precipitous births are generally good for the baby, they can be extremely traumatizing for moms. Labor itself tends to begin without warning and goes from a 0 to 10 in a matter of minutes. The phases of labor that we learn about in preparation for giving birth are early labor, active labor and transition.
Women who experience a precipitous labor either do not feel their early labor at all or have an extremely short early labor stage.
In my case, I simply did not feel my early labor contractions. I know this to be a fact because when my water broke with my first child, I went to the hospital assuming I would need to be induced, since contractions had not started. It was there that they told me I was already 5 cm dilated and having contractions every 5 minutes but I did not feel a single one.
Due to the nearly non-existent early labor stage, most women having a precipitous labor won’t feel the first contraction until they enter the transition phase. Instead of slowly adjusting to a gradual increase in pain, they are completely blindsided by the pain. During transition, the contractions can be very close together, making it difficult to catch your breath in between in order to prepare for the next one.
But the worst trauma of all when dealing with a precipitous labor, is the impossibility of trying NOT to push while the baby’s head is crowning and so desperately wants out! Often, doctors and midwives are surprised by precipitous labors, considering how rare they are (especially among first time moms). Many times, the labor and delivery staff are unprepared or waiting for the doctor to get there. They will tell you to blow out through your mouth in an effort to halt labor, but anyone who has given birth knows this is a futile attempt. Doing this can cause damage to the birth canal or pelvic floor muscles and can lead to infections, bleeding and tearing.
So instead of experiencing the immediate relief that comes with finally delivering a baby, you’re forced to wait in an unnecessary amount of pain, because no one believed you when you said you felt like pushing.
The Psychological Trauma
I can almost guarantee you that when you have a precipitous labor – no one will believe you. It’s extremely frustrating to be made to feel like you are overreacting. Since precipitous labors are quite rare, it’s understandable that no one would assume you’re having one until it’s too late. But as a women in labor, especially if it’s your first time, it can be frightening and isolating to go through this alone.
If you’re concerned about having to advocate for yourself during a precipitous labor, consider hiring a doula. The job of a doula is to empower and support a laboring mother. So when you say you’re in pain, or feel the urge to push, a doula will believe you if no one else will.
Often, women who have a precipitous labor are left feeling like they had no voice and no control during their labor. In the long run, these feelings can have a dire effect on a new mother’s mental health.
Immediately following labor
After the 2 hour and 43 minute delivery of my first child, to say that I was traumatized would be an understatement. Immediately after birth, I experienced a surge of adrenaline that caused my entire body to tremor and shake so badly that I couldn’t even hold my new baby.
Being in a state of shock following a precipitous labor is completely understandable. Your body and mind have not had time to adjust to the incredible miracle that it’s just performed. You may also feel a sense of sadness or loss for the labor experience that you imagined you would have. If you created a birth plan, chances are that your precipitous labor threw all that right out the window.
Weeks, months and years later
I had nightmares for weeks afterwards, re-living every painful and panic stricken moment. PTSD is a more accurate diagnosis.
It’s hard to predict how much a precipitous labor will affect your mental health until long afterwards. Many women who suffer from postpartum depression or anxiety find that it began with their precipitous labor. This may not always be evident however, and it’s only after discussing things with a therapist that they see it to be true.
In general, consecutive labors tend to be faster than the first – which is scary when your first was less than 3 hours. My second child was born in 2 hours and 4 minutes from the start of the first contraction and baby number three made her appearance in 1 hour and 34 minutes.
Women who were overly traumatized following their precipitous labor may feel less inclined to have another child altogether. And those who do often take additional and sometimes extreme steps to ensure they have a better experience. Some may opt for a home birth, to be induced or choose an elective c-section. They may become extremely anxious as their due date nears and make several trips to the doctor with false alarms.
What’s important to do, as a woman expecting a precipitous labor, is to demand the care and attention you need. Find a doctor who understands your condition and come up with a game plan together (including a back-up plan). Hire a doula or have a backup list of support people. Keep close to home or where you plan to deliver. Being prepared for a precipitous labor is an advantage with subsequent pregnancies that you don’t get the first time.
I personally dislike being told that I am “lucky” to have had such short labors. I am thankful that my children were born healthy and without complications. I am grateful that I was able to deliver them naturally, without drugs as I had planned. I believe all women who give birth, whether they labor for days on end, or only for a matter of minutes, whether they’ve had c-sections, epidurals or water births – deserve all the credit that is due to them. Giving birth in itself is a blessing – no matter how you do it.
Additional Articles about Precipitous Labor:
American Pregnancy Association
Emergency Child Birth Information:
Baby Center summarizes what to do if you deliver a baby before help arrives.
Wiki How has a step by step tutorial on how to deliver a baby in an emergency with pictures
Med Help has a very detailed article on delivering a baby in an emergency including what to do for various complications.