Long Labors and What to do?

woman lying down in a hospital bed

Why having a long labor may be beneficial and necessary.

You will never hear an expectant mother say, “I hope I have the kind of labor that takes several days.” In fact, for some, it may be their worst nightmare. Images of long hours in pain and fatigue setting in can make mothers turn to medical interventions.

Unfortunately our current culture rarely values things that take longer. While we enjoy a home-cooked meal that has gently simmered all day on the stove, we will often quickly settle for a fast food alternative without thinking that the first option was indeed much healthier and better for us. Childbirth has become another area where few people value the time it may take a woman’s body to give birth to her baby. Instead, we settle for quick inductions, speeding labor up when it appears to be taking longer and even doing more cesareans when we have given up waiting any longer.

The truth is that women labor in all different ways. Not to mention, there is no real valid tool to measure the average length of labor for women. Some have tried to use an observation made by Dr. Friedman as a “goal” for labor progress. He noted that mothers in active labor progressed about 1 cm per hour. That observation has been the kiss of death for the issue of labor length since it used now as a guide that labors should progress 1 cm per hour!

My observation from being a doula for nearly 12 years and taking part in over 300 births is that labor is completely unique for all mothers. Mothers who have five children will not labor the same way for all five births. Some mothers will have a 2 hour labor while others need 2 days to accomplish the same job. We have no evidence that clearly tells us why there are such huge differences in labor length.

But we do know that so much has to happen during labor in order for the baby to be born, including changes in the cervix, hormone levels and position of the baby to name a few. It can be very helpful for a woman to know that her body is working from the very first contraction! Progress may be slower than “average” but perhaps her body needs that time to work everything out?

I have also observed labors that start and stop over several days. I call this “ebb and flow” labor and I see it often. Having breaks during labor might be beneficial to give the mother a rest. What happens today is that this type of “ebb and flow” labor is not respected or left alone. Instead of trusting that her body needs more time, she is frequently encouraged to speed up her labor with pitocin. I rarely see this as beneficial since now her labor is artificially altered at a pace that was not the mother’s natural pace.

So if you are an expectant mother, just remember that having a long labor may just be what your body needs to do in order to give birth to your baby! Here are some quick pointers if your labor is long:

  1. Eat and drink frequently to keep up your strength.
  2. Stay home as long as possible before going into the hospital (unless your provider advises otherwise.)
  3. Stay mobile and change positions often.
  4. If your labor slows down, take the opportunity to take a nap.
  5. Be sure to talk with your provider ahead of time about your wishes if labor is long.

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