How long does labour take and what is considered "fast"?

Unless there is a need for medical intervention, every labour takes as long as it needs. It's worth getting yourself familiar with the three stages of labour as they become important in what to expect from your midwife or obstetrician as the labour goes on. However, what some people term 'short' might not be quite a brief as they think.


Most women talk about '18-hour labour' because it is reasonable to count from the first contractions you have. However, in the early stages of your contractions, you may even be able still to busy yourself with ironing, cooking or another activity to take your mind off the aches and pains you are feeling. To imagine that 'labour' is 18 hours of constant sweating, intense contraction pain, controlled breathing and pushing would, in many cases, be completely wrong.

Are second labours shorter?

Still, it is true that some women have fast labours and may find that subsequent labours come even faster! In their case, it may be that their body has been more gradually preparing for the birth, perhaps the contractions have actually been building over days but without apparent pain until the very end.

If there are physiological reasons for this, they are not always apparent – shorter, taller, wider-hipped, thinner, being the daughter of someone who had speedy births… none of these are a guarantee that you definitely will or won't have a short labour.

Just as so many women find that long periods of painful contractions ends in the disappointment of hardly any dilation of their cervix (that is, when the mouth of the uterus stretches and thins in order to open wide enough for the baby to pass through), other women may find the dilation occurs fully within minutes or just one hour.

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If you get to this point of readiness with few painful contractions then that is simply your good fortune, but the actual birth of the baby does need to be controlled.

Controlling the speed of labour

It is important that the baby does not pass through the birth canal too quickly as, for the child, it can cause oxygen deprivation. Additionally, to ensure the baby's body does not endure undue physical stress, the midwife managing the birth needs to be able to gently manoeuvre the baby's head and shoulders out of the vagina.

For the mother, a too-fast birth can cause unnecessary tearing to the vagina or perineum (the tissue between the vagina and anus) which requires stitches and in some cases can take months to heal properly.

If you do feel that the labour is progressing quickly, don't panic. Call your midwife team or labour ward and they should be able to gauge whether or not you need to make your way to the hospital or if they need to make an emergency collection for you. Rarely, unless there are other medical concerns, does a birth become a 999 situation.


If you are planning a home birth, again you should contact your midwife immediately, just to make sure the progress is being managed. Whether you are at home or in hospital, you can be examined to see if you need some treatment to actually slow things down a little or if the birth is coming along safely.