It’s probably every mom’s wish to go into the labor room, pop the baby out and be done with the delivery. In reality, that doesn’t happen for everyone. If your delivery takes a long time, it is called a prolonged labor. How long can labor and delivery take, what are the effects of a prolonged labor on the baby and things you can do to speed things up?

What is a prolonged labor

A prolonged labor, or a failure to progress, is a labor that takes more than 20 hours for first-time mothers and more than 14 hours for mothers who have given birth before.

Whether a labor is prolonged or not isn’t only defined by the duration: a labor is regarded as prolonged when cervical dilation takes place at less than 1 cm per hour.

Causes of the prolonged labor

A prolonged labor can be caused by the following:

Obstructed labor

Obstructed labor refers to labor being unable to progress because the baby is too big to pass through the mother’s pelvis and the birth canal. This could cause a perineal tear or cause the uterus to rupture. As there are risks to both the mother and fetus, a cesarean section, instead of a vaginal birth, is recommended.

Fetal factors

The fetus continues to grow even after the due date has passed, and if the baby stays in the uterus for too long, this can cause the baby to become too big. If the mom has gestational diabetes as well, the fetus might become really big (macrosomia) and be unable to pass through the pelvis. Carrying twins can also be another cause of a prolonged labor.

Weak contractions

Weak contractions usually mean that labor takes a longer time to progress. If you go into labor but your contractions continue over the span of 2 to 3 days and you’re unable to deliver, this will undoubtedly strain your body, drain you of your strength and weaken the fetus. Your doctor will most likely recommend that labor-inducing drugs be used, and if you’re still unable to deliver the baby, your baby will be delivered via a C-section.

Factors that increase the risk of having a prolonged labor


Obesity, when accompanied with other health complications like gestational diabetes or pregnancy-induced hypertension, can cause a baby to become much bigger than the average baby. It is believed that extra fat deposits around the birth canal can make things more difficult for the mother during labor and hence cause a prolonged labor.

Being too skinny

You might be petite but strong – but this might not be a universal truth for everyone. The fact remains that women who are very skinny aren’t physically strong. Being a lightweight during pregnancy could also mean that your baby isn’t getting the nutrients they need (because you might not be, either) and so your baby might be at risk of becoming a low-birth-weight baby. The recommended weight gain throughout the whole of your pregnancy is about 25 to 35 pounds (putting on 1 to 5 pounds during the first trimester, and about 1 pound a week the rest of the pregnancy). Remember that this is but a standard range and you’ll need to talk to your practitioner to be sure if you should follow this recommendation or not.

Decrease in muscle mass

Most moms become more sedentary during pregnancy and as their bellies grow bigger, their movements conversely become slower. However, not moving about can result in the decrease in your muscle mass and physical strength. It might make it difficult for you to push hard enough during labor.

Advanced maternal age or very young maternal age

Being pregnant at 15 years of age and younger or 35 years and older could make labor more difficult. If the mom is still young, this means that her body might not be strong enough to withstand the changes both hormonal and physical, increasing her risk of being anemic, getting gestational hypertension or having a preterm birth.

Mothers of an advanced maternal age are at risk of gestational hypertension, placental abruption, placenta previa and other risks. These complications, in turn, might make labor more difficult and cause it to become prolonged.

Effects of a failure to progress on the fetus

In the event of a prolonged labor, the baby might not have enough oxygen. This increases the risk of birth asphyxia (not enough oxygen before, during or after birth) and the risk of breathing difficulties in the infant.

In order to reduce the risk of such problems occurring, the mom-in-labor might be given labor-inducing drugs. Fetal movement is continually monitored even when labor-inducing drugs are administered, so there is no need to worry. Your doctors will be watching over you and your baby.

How to reduce the risks of a prolonged labor

Staying fit and healthy

Watch your diet and your weight gain even while making sure you have sufficient exercise and rest. Eating what you want when you feel like it without regard for your overall health can lead to pregnancy complications. Avoid eating junk food – they contain too many empty calories – and opt for food that has less sugar.

Taking walks/doing light exercise

You need to be strong to withstand the labor and delivery process. Getting enough exercise or taking walks will help build strength. However, all things must be done in moderation – doing too much strenuous exercise could harm your fetus indirectly or hurt your knees and back. Make sure you go at your own pace and breathe in deeply when you’re walking. In the last month of pregnancy from Week 36 to Week 40, exercise might be really difficult, but try to get in 30 to 40 minutes of walking each day.

Reduce risks of a failure to progress through a healthy lifestyle!

Unexpected problems can crop up during labor and lengthen the whole process of labor. If you can, you’d like to avoid having a prolonged labor which only serves to prolong your agony. Try to do what you can to have a healthy lifestyle. That’s the best you can do, so do what you can to have the easiest labor and delivery you can.

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