What Is Prolonged Labor, and What Are Its Symptoms?

What Is Prolonged Labor, and What Are Its Symptoms?

While many women can bond over the fact that having a baby is a similar and beautiful experience. Many women will also tell you that labor is incredibly unique to each woman, and that’s why so many variables occur. 

It’s normal to wonder whether labor will be quick like some women claim, or drawn out. While most women hope for the former, this is not always the case. Sometimes women experience what is called prolonged labor

While it is not anything to necessarily panic about, it is good to understand what it is and what you can expect when a doctor tells you that is your current state. Let’s talk about it. 

What is Prolonged Labor? 

Prolonged labor is when a mother is having a slow labor process. A doctor may refer to this as “failure to progress” and indicate that they need to continue monitoring your situation. If there is no immediate urgency to change your situation, a doctor may continue monitoring. At some point, they may suggest taking alternative routes to change the court of action. 

Prolonged labor can be diagnosed for a number of reasons, and about 8% of women end up being diagnosed with some form of prolonged labor. 

What Causes Prolonged Labor? 

There can be a few different reasons an expecting mother experiences prolonged labor. While we will detail them out, most of the causes can be attributed to the baby’s ability to travel through the birth canal. If the baby is not able to pass through the birth canal, then likely pregnancy will stall. 

The Cervix Does Not Dilate

In order for the baby to travel through the birth canal,  the cervix needs to continually open up and dilate to at least 6 centimeters. This is considered active pregnancy. Your cervix can continually dilate to 10 centimeters through the process of having a baby. When contractions are weak and the cervix is not affected, this is a sign of prolonged labor. 

The Baby Is Too Big

Sometimes a woman may experience prolonged labor because the baby is too big to travel through the current size of the birth canal. In this case, a doctor may take a completely different course of action than they might if your cervix just wasn’t opening up quickly enough. 

The Birth Canal Is Too Small

The opposite issue is that sometimes a baby is an average size, but the birth canal is also too small for the baby to pass through. These are two separate issues, despite it being the same problem. 

Breech or Abnormal Position

If the baby is not in the right position with its head down and feet upwards, this can prolong labor. A doctor may respond by continuing to wait to see if the baby changes their position, or at some point they may call an alternative delivery such as a c-section. 

Contractions Are Too Weak

Sometimes the birth canal is the right size and so is the baby, but the mother’s contractions are too weak to push the baby through labor. Contractions as labor progress will become more frequent as well as a lot stronger. If the contractions are weak and infrequent, a doctor may try to speed this up through medicine. 

Prolonged Labor Symptoms

Prolonged Labor Symptoms

While a lot of the causes result in some same symptoms, it’s worth noting what they are. You also don’t necessarily need to worry about diagnosing yourself because a doctor will be able to tell if you are in prolonged labor or not. 

That’s because doctor visits and checkups become so frequent near the end that when it is time to have your baby, you will be in the hospital anyway. Here are some of the symptoms a doctor is going to look out for. 

This list includes, but is not limited to:

  • Very slow or weak contractions that are spread far apart with no real progression increasing time or strength 
  • A cervix that is not dilating or dilating at a very slow rate compared to contractions 
  • Labor extending beyond 18 hours is a symptom of prolonged labor 
  • Feeling exhausted and dehydrated
  • Back pain/neck pain
  • Higher heart rate or pulse

All of these symptoms are because the process is drawn out. Labor regardless of the strength of contractions is exhausting and a lot on the body. 

How Long Does Prolonged Labor Last? 

After 18 hours of having regular contractions regardless of strength, doctors will likely diagnose the mother in prolonged labor. Most first-time mothers will have their babies between 12-18 hours, while others between 6-12 hours. 

After 18 hours, a doctor is likely to take the next steps in diagnosing and treating prolonged labor. While only about 1% of mothers experience labor for more than 20 hours, it is still possible to occur. 

However, doctors may diagnose prolonged labor a little differently based on the stage of labor the mother is in and the amount of dilation the cervix is in. 

How is Prolonged Labor Treated?

How is Prolonged Labor Treated?

There are several ways a doctor may treat prolonged labor, but the first thing a doctor will look at is a test to see the strength of contractions. This test is called Intrauterine Pressure Catheter Placement (IUPC). This is a small monitor that goes into the womb to see how strong the contractions are and how often they are occurring. This can let the doctor know how things are progressing. If the contractions are weak they will consider one method of treatment over a c-section, to begin with. 

Here are the ways prolonged labor are treated:

  1. If the cause of the prolonged labor is because of labor pains that are causing the body to tense up, medicine can be given to help relieve this tension. When the medicine kicks in, likely contractions will continue and the cervix will soften. 
  2. Depending on the stage of labor, a baby may already be moving through the birth canal. This is because contractions may have started strong enough, but did not get stronger through the process. A doctor or midwife may need to use what is called a vacuum or other tool to help bring the baby through the birth canal. 
  3. In terms of a breech position or the fact that the baby will not be able to travel through the birth canal at all, a c-section or cesarean surgery may be performed. This is when the baby is surgically delivered by cutting open the stomach rather than delivering through the birth canal. 

Who is Prone to Have Prolonged Labor?

Prolonged labor is more commonly seen in women in the first pregnancy. The reason for this is partially due to the stress of the unknown among first-time mothers. This is not always the case, but certainly a factor of consideration. Mothers in their second pregnancy or more know what to expect and maybe more relaxed. 

Mothers over the age of 35 are also more prone to having prolonged pregnancies because of any complications a body may take on as they get older. The more stress the body can handle, the better, so in some cases, it’s very individual. 

Prolonged Labor Risks

Prolonged Labor Risks

While prolonged labor certainly can be and will be treated by your doctor, there are some risks, which is why it is so important to monitor the situation. Let’s talk about them.

Oxygen Deprivation

When labor is prolonged or arrested, the risk of the baby/mother losing oxygen or being deprived of too much oxygen becomes greater. As they become bigger in the womb they need more space and oxygen and if contractions 

Fetal Distress 

This can also cause distress to a baby that is ready to be born. They may experience heart irregularities or other symptoms. 

Amniotic Fluid/Infection

Because the amniotic fluid will have changed quite a bit at this stage, there may be an increased risk for undesirable substances in the amniotic fluid. This can lead to infection, or infection can occur all on its own from another source. 

Uterine Infection

The mother may start to feel pain in and around their uterus during prolonged labor. This can be the result of an infection that occurs in the uterus due to prolonged labor. 

Prolonged Labor FAQs

At this point, you are probably feeling wishy-washy on whether prolonged labor is a big deal or not. While it is taken care of by doctors and treated very commonly, anything with pregnancy raises concern. That’s why we have taken this section to answer the most frequently asked questions you have!

How do you know when labor has started? 

You can’t possibly know how long you have been in labor for if you don’t know when you started going into labor in the first place. The first indicator is going to be when your water breaks or when you start going into regular contractions with increasing strength. 

This does not mean that the baby is coming immediately. However, there is no immediate way of telling whether you are going to have prolonged labor or not, so it is best to start heading your way to the hospital. 

Are C-Sections preplanned?

A lot of the time, a doctor will schedule a c-section in advance if there are underlying causes that the doctor will diagnose. Something like Placenta previa is one of them. This is where the birth canal is blocked by the placenta and the baby cannot pass.

Emergency c-sections when the baby is breech do happen. This is if prolonged labor or another condition makes it unsafe or impossible to deliver the baby through the birth canal. 

Is prolonged labor hereditary? 

Technically speaking something like prolonged labor cannot be hereditary. The reason being is that prolonged labor is a condition, not a gene. However, you can be set up more likely to have prolonged labor because of the type of body you inherit. Certain body types are more prone to prolonged labor rather than that actual condition. 

Rely On Your Doctor

Pregnancy, no matter how many times you have had a baby, is both exciting and stressful. Every mother would love to have their baby as quickly as possible due to the grueling process their bodies go through. But for first-time mothers, it is more likely that you will experience prolonged labor. Having said that, the percentages remain low. 

If you do end up being diagnosed with prolonged labor, then there are several steps your doctor will take to monitor the situation to make sure you and the baby are doing OK. They may give you medicine to help speed up the contractions or ease any labor aches associated with prolonged labor. 

Even in some worst-case scenarios, doctors know exactly what to do. In worst-case scenarios, you may be asked to have an emergency c-section. This procedure is very common nowadays and can be done safely. Having said that, it is always good to take care and be aware of the situation you are in with the baby.