Guess What? Longer Labors Are Totally Normal

longer labor
Image via j&j brusie photography

As the night threatened to turn into day, the doctor on call ran his hands through his hair. 

“I don't have a good feeling about this one,” he said ruefully. “I think she's going to end up with the slice … “

It was approximately 2 o'clock in the morning, and my patient's labor had dragged and stalled for what felt like days. She wasn't uncomfortable, and the baby wasn't in any dire distress, but the doctor's lack of faith spurred me into action. When he told her to be prepared for a c-section, I sprung into action. 

I hurried into the room as he walked briskly out and gave my best pep talk. “You can do this!” I said. “There is nothing wrong with you or your body—let's prove him wrong!”

And we pushed. And pushed. And pushed some more. Both of us were exhausted but triumphant when it became clear that the birth of her baby girl was imminent. I called the doctor into the room and felt a moment of pride when he shook his head in disbelief. 

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“Wow!” he exclaimed. “You did it! All right—now let's get this kid out!”

So what exactly caused her doctor's misgivings that night? Was it a baby on the verge of a disaster? An emergency just waiting to happen? A mother too exhausted to go on?

Nope. 

It was none of those things. His leanings towards a c-section had to do with one reason and one reason only:

Her labor was taking too long. 

“Timelines” for what is generally acceptable for a woman's labor are common, yet unofficial beliefs that are held among doctors and women's healthcare staff. Although it's widely known that labor can be predictable or long lasting, especially for first-time mothers, many doctors still hold onto a timeline. 

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With the doctor I worked with, there was no real reason that he should have doubted his patient's ability to give birth vaginally. He simply thought her long labor was a sign that something was wrong. 

But as it turns out, just as he was wrong that night, doctors everywhere may have to rethink their fears and realize that longer labors are totally normal. 

The New York Times recently reported on a new study that looked at the second stage of labor when a woman is pushing—the stage that is generally thought of as the “fast” stage. Current guidelines maintain that a woman in the second stage of labor should be able to push her baby out within three hours (usually two) if she has an epidural and within two hours if she does not have an epidural. And if a woman isn't able to push her baby out in the “recommended” time? You guessed it—she's usually heading for an “emergency” c-section. 

Epidurals can dull a woman's sensation for pushing and block her muscles needed for pushing, hence the delay in the two groups. The guidelines are meant as a safety standard. The thought process is that the longer a woman pushes, the more her baby is deprived of oxygen with each contraction, putting the baby at risk for long-term damage. 

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But another study showed that those guidelines may actually be totally unfounded

The new study found that instead of the three hours with an epidural for a first-time mother, a normal second stage of labor could actually last up to almost six hours

That's a huge difference. And although I definitely don't want to be that mother pushing for six hours, it is an interesting concept that doctors need to be aware of—and it might avoid a lot of unnecessary c-sections. 

How long did you push for? Did you have an epidural while pushing?

What do you think?

Guess What? Longer Labors Are Totally Normal

Chaunie Brusie is a writer, mom of four, and founder of The Stay Strong Mom, a community + gift box service for moms after loss. ... More

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24 comments

  1. Michele says:

    I had epidurals with both pregnancies – my first I was in labor 24 hours and pushed for 45 mins – totally didn’t feel like it. My second I was in labor 21 hours and never got to push. My midwife took so long to get there that I was heaving from the prolonged pain (epi didn’t take on half) that I was throwing up and he jettisoned out. Literally, head and shoulders – everyone was so focused on me barfing that I had to tell them he came out.

  2. i couldn’t get dialiated enough. I stalled at 7 cm and stayed that way. After two days in labor, doctors were like this is going no where fast. c section and out popped a healthy baby.

  3. michelle says:

    First time mom.. pushed for less then 20 minutes with an epidural and had a healthy baby girl. Was in labor a total of 6 hours. No one believed I was in labor except 1 nurse.. they kept me in triage for 4 of the 6 hrs.

  4. Sarah says:

    First time Mom, 17 minutes, no epidural. They didn’t believe me in triage that I was as far along as I was so by the time they realized and sent me upstairs I was already pushing in the elevator. Never made it to a proper room and gave birth on the gurney. My Doctor arrived 19 minutes after he got the call and she was already born.

  5. Marianne says:

    I pushed for 4 1/2 hours with my first. I did have an epidural, but it was kinked & not doing much until 2 1/2 hours into pushing. I could have kissed everyone when it was fixed! He was posterior which contributed to some of the issue. I also went into natural labor in my 39th week. He was crowning the whole time (well after a few pushes), but i couldn’t get him out. 8 lbs 10 oz of healthy boy.

  6. INDRA says:

    THIS HAPPENED EXACTLY WITH MY FIRST BABY DELIVERY AND THANKS TO THE NURSE I WAS ABLE TO DELIVER NATURALLY. YES WE NEED MORE NURSES LIKE YOU.

  7. robin says:

    How about THIS story. My mom had 4 of us. I am the oldest. I was the longest labor. She got to the hospital at midnight, and I was born at 4am. 2nd came months early and only survived a month. 3rd was almost born in the car during evening rush hour traffic! LOL The 4th baby…..she felt NONE of the contractions!!! They said “Can you get up on this gurney?” She said “Um, his head is coming out!” He woulda fell out on the floor if she hadn’t told them he was about to slide right out! LOL !

  8. robin says:

    My 1st was 10 days late. My labor started in the afternoon, with spotting and cramping. By midnight my hips hurt so bad I could not lay down. By 4 am I was having contractions, and went to the hospital at 5:30. 8am my water broke, with meconium in it. I was given an epidural. The nurses said they were taking away the epidural because I was “pushing wrong”. ????? The back labor was enough to have me yelling in pain. After hours and hours of pushing without any pain meds, and almost passing out in pain, the doc said,” I guess he is stuck.” I was thinking, “I could have told you that at 9 am!” My son’s head was big, and my stubborn pelvis was not budging. At 2:30 they did a c-section. 3:12 he was born. 9 lbs 6 oz, with a 14″ head, 21.5″ long. If he coulda stayed in there he would STILL be in there! hahaha he is now 20 yrs old. Oh, and all those hours of pushing caused me to have a prolapsed bladder. NOT FUN! So much for my “child-bearing hips”! LOL

    My 2nd was another biggun. If I would have gone full term she would have been over 11 pounds. A c-section was planned for 5 days before she was due. She decided she was too squished TWO days before that. I went into labor at 4 am. I was in denial. hahaha I left for the hospital after 8am, got there by 9 due to rush hour traffic. I had to wait and do my he-he-whos til an OR was available. She was born c-section at 10:12 am. 10 lbs 3 oz, 21.5 “, a week early. And she was talking her little baby babble, not crying. I guess she was saying,” I’m sorry. I was so squished I couldn’t wait any longer!” LOL

    I believe I should have had a c-section sooner the 1st time. I was concerned he might swallow the meconium, and have lung issues like my co-worker’s son did. The poor kid was sick and in and out of the hospital his entire childhood because the doc saw the meconium, and didn’t do a c-section. I was blessed NOT to have that issue with my son.

  9. dvmsara says:

    Went into labor with my first when my water broke at 3 AM. I was 39 weeks, 5 days. I had no epidural or any other intervention. I started pushing at 9:30 and he was born at 11:30. He was, however, “sunny side up” (i.e. posterior presentation i.e. face-up), so it probably would not have been so long otherwise.

  10. E says:

    Good for YOU for believing in the mama when the doctor didn’t because things weren’t going according to HIS timeline! There needs to be A LOT more nurses like YOU!

  11. Cherise says:

    I was induced at 39 weeks 4 days. I had an epidural from the start and pushed for 10 minutes

  12. Candice says:

    I was induced on my due date with my daughter. I made it 36 hours without the epidural but finally broke down and got it due to exhaustion. 5 hours later the doctor said it was time to push and it took about 20-30 minutes to get her out. Thankfully I felt my contractions just enough to know when to push. I never felt like I was being rushed by the doctor or the nurses. Hopefully the birth of my next baby goes as well.

  13. Kelsey says:

    I was induced at 41.4 weeks with my first. Was in labor for 36 hours, pushed for 3 and ended up having to have an emergency c-section. I was so disappointed, the doctor made me feel as though I was incompetent and just wasn’t trying. The nurse and the three family members I had in the room with me could all see his head but they still took me to surgery anyway.

  14. Melissa says:

    I have had for natural child births with all large babies with my first daughter was 10.13 lbs and I pushed for 5 hrs but she was fine and I was hanging in there my midwife was amazed I had just a small bruise and did not need any assistance whole labor 36 hrs. 2nd daughter I was induced at 41.2 wks and it lasted 11 hrs I pushed for 30 minutes my son baby 3 weighed 9.5 and I made it to the hospital at 9 cm dr broke my water and I pushed 2 times labor lasted 7 hrs my newborn came 8/6/14 3 days before my induction date he weighed 9.14 and my labor lasted 5 hrs and I pushed for 3 minutes and he got stuck but we were both fine. I cant even imagine the next one!!!!

  15. Andi says:

    I got really luckey with both my sons as by the time I went to hospital I was already 7cm from my braxton hicks leading up to the labor, with my first born the doctor had gotten nervous thou since I was 41 weeks along and sent me in to be ‘induced’ which in my case was they just broke my water, he was a 3 and a half hour labor with approximately 3 big pushes and the nurses telling me to stop pushing cause my doc had wandered off to get a coffee. My second was a 22 minute labor with about the same on pushing and me laughing at the doc scrambling to get his scrubs on. Thou I know my mother had a 48 hour labor with me not sure how long pushing.

  16. Katherine says:

    I was completely numb with an epidural for both of my pregnancies. I only pushed for 20-30 minutes for each. My first labor was 25 hours 🙁 but my second was induced and only 5 hours long. Due with my third baby in a week. We’ll see how that one goes! Hoping for natural birth that isn’t as long as the first one.

  17. Crystal says:

    I had the best case scenario for my epidural- I still had full use of my legs and was still able to feel just enough of the labor to know when I needed to push and be able to feel everything that was going on but I wasn’t in pain. Actively pushed for 2.5 hours and we had
    our little man. I had a great team of midwives that never once questioned my decision to keep going even though I’d been in labor for over 24 hours. They knew a c-section was a last case scenario that I wanted to avoid at all
    costs and they totally respected that. Never once during my labor did they even mention the possibility of a c-section.

  18. Kristin says:

    I was induced and it was 38 hours from start to finish. I had an epidural but the catheter came out when I changed positions early on I the pushing process, so I felt everything. I pushed for 5 hours before I ended up with and episiotomy and aid of the vacuum to get my 9lb 5oz baby boy out. Not exactly the ideal situation for my first child birth experience. Hopefully when we have baby number 2 it will be a little easier

  19. my first was 19 hours start to finish .in a hospital and #2 is due in November and i plan to have her at home

  20. Morgan says:

    I have 5 babies born vaginally all health as can be, With epidurals.. But I’ll never forget my first born… I sat in labor for 2 days at home because I couldn’t dilate and my water wouldn’t break, also baby wasn’t turned right which we found out during pushing… I had to be induced ,labor felt like for ever but the epidural didn’t stop anything, when came time to push it was the worst pain I ever felt as she wasn’t turned properly and broke my tailbone , I pushed for 15 mins and she was out. We knew then my body wasn’t ment for natural childbirth ..I’ve had the same doctor who is amazing for the past 8 years and he has since then induced labor at 38-39 weeks with each which has made birth a lot more easy going /less painful… Each child birthed was 15-20 mins pushing and labor that last maybe 4-5 hours from time water was broke and epidural given, I’m currently due in November with our little boy and the same procedure will be done, I’m praying for the same results 😉

  21. Hollye says:

    Interesting. I thought I pushed a long time with my first (1 1/2 hours), but maybe not. It was clear the nurses were getting impatient, and my dr was getting nervous because he had another patient in labor at a different hospital. They actually brought in a nurse they call the Baby Whisperer because they didn’t think I was pushing effectively. In her efforts to ‘help’ me, she actually made me tear before my baby even crowned. I’ll remember this in September with baby #2!

  22. Amber says:

    I was in Labor for 33 hours, my Dr. Said that we will have to start getting preped for a c-section, because I was dialating fully. The second she had said that I dilated to a 10, than pushed for 3 hours.My baby came out healthy as can be!

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