OK, so we need to start with an apology. If you’re looking for a set answer to how long you’ll be in labour, you’re out of luck. Sorry but, for reasons we’ll explain here, there just isn’t one ?
We can, though, give you a rough idea how long the average labour is – and that’s anything from 8 to 18 hours (veering toward the longer when it’s your 1st child, though not necessarily). But there will always be some women whose labour lasts longer than 18 hours, and others whose labour is shorter than 8.
Why is labour length so different for everyone?
We spoke to midwife Katie Hilton, and she told us that the strength of your contractions and position of the baby can affect how long how labour lasts – at least in the 1st stage (labour is divided by midwives into 3 distinct stages).
When your cervix (the neck of your womb) is between 0 to 4cm dilated (‘dilation’ is the term used for the process of your cervix opening up to allow your baby to pass through into your vagina and then out into the world), you are in what is known as ‘early labour’ or latent labour. And the time this stage takes, says Katie, can ‘vary wildly’ from woman to woman.
Once you’re 4cm dilated, you’re in ‘active labour’ – and this lasts until you’re 10cm (or fully) dilated. Both these phases (early and active) are part of the 1st stage of labour and can last for hours.
Contractions can be irregular and some women have contractions that aren’t as effective as they could be at opening up the cervix, which means this stage takes a while. In addition, Katie says, this stage can last longer if you baby is in an unusual position.
After the 1st stage comes the 2nd stage of labour, which lasts from when your cervix is fully dilated up until to your baby is born. The 3rd stage happens after the birth, when you deliver the placenta.
And the fact there are different stages to labour is another reason why labour lengths seem to differ so much. Your midwife will only record your labour time from the moment you arrive in hospital, and some women might not count the 1st twinges of latent labour as being in labour at all, for example.
Some of us might be timing our labour from the very 1st contraction, while others only count the time from when they’re in active labour.
In addition, having an epidural can slow the whole process of labour down, too.
Bearing all this in mind, you can probably see why the answers to the ‘how long does labour last’ question vary so much. Nevertheless, we thought we’d share what some of our mums said, just to give you an idea….
How long does labour last? What our mums said…
“1 hr 52 mins. From waters breaking to birth,” says Natalie T. “No contractions until 30 mins after waters went but they were the highest-strength contractions the midwife had seen, and she’d been there 30plus years!”
“I have 6 children: 3 of them were quick and easy, all under 2 hours. The other 3 were in the back-to-back position and took ages, all over 12 hours. The longest was my first, which was 78 hours in total, from waters breaking to delivery.” Lisa S.
“About 5 days on and off,” says Pammy B. “But from my arrival to hospital at 5cm, it was another 16 hours until we met our girly by emergency C-section.”
“My hospital notes say 19 hours… but I was in labour for much longer!” Carys L tells us. “Contractions started on the Tuesday afternoon, and my daughter was born on the Thursday lunchtime.”
“My 1st was over 36 hours, and 2nd was only 3 hours. They were like night and day!” says Emma C
And Marsha C says, “Both 18 hours. My 2nd was back to back and came out asleep. The midwife hadn’t seen anything like it!”
“1 hour 45 minutes from 1st twinge to having Lily washed and dressed,” says Jo P.
“From start to finish? With my 1st: 2hr 22 minutes; 2nd: 1hr 45 minutes; 3rd: 3 hrs,” says Lorraine B.