What is Prolonged Labor and How is it Treated?

Updated on August 17, 2022

We wish labor was always swift and painless. For some women, however, labor can be a grueling experience with no apparent end in sight. Prolonged labor carries elevated risk of birth injuries to both mother and child, so doctors must carefully monitor vital signs and perform a C-section, if necessary.

Defining Prolonged Labor

A first-time mother will probably be in labor for 12-18 hours. For those who don’t know, labor consists of a series of forceful muscle contractions which push the baby through the birth canal and widen the cervix so a child can emerge. Although contractions may be episodic at first, they increase in frequency and intensity.

Sometimes, however, labor is stalled. And if 20 hours have passed, then you are having prolonged labor, though some doctors would define prolonged labor as occurring when at least 18 hours have passed without the birth of your child.

Prolonged labor has many causes. The baby’s head could be too large, or the child could be in an abnormal position. Some women also have weak contractions, or the analgesics they take impair their ability to “push” the baby.

Risks with Prolonged Labor

Prolonged labor definitely increases the risk of a birth injury. For example, there is usually a concern with the baby getting sufficient oxygen. Any oxygen deprivation is very dangerous, especially to the health of brain tissue, which can begin dying after only a few minutes of insufficient oxygen.

Some children who suffer oxygen deprivation will experience permanent brain damage, which can manifest in different ways. Different parts of the brain perform different functions, so the disability will depend on which brain tissue dies. A baby experiencing prolonged labor could also develop other conditions, such as cerebral palsy or seizures.

During prolonged labor, mothers are also at risk of infection, hemorrhage, and cervical tears. The medical team must monitor a mother as well as a child to ensure that her blood pressure doesn’t crash or that she bleeds uncontrollably.

Treating Prolonged Labor

The usual course of treatment is to deliver the baby in a safe and speedy manner. If contractions are weak, a doctor can give Pitocin, which should increase their intensity. Some women can deliver normally after that.

If the child is already in the birth canal, however, a doctor might use forceps to grasp the head and help pull the baby through or reposition it. An alternative is a vacuum device which attaches a plastic cup to the baby’s head and serves much the same purpose as forceps.

Another option is C-section, which becomes necessary when the baby is in distress. Although a C-section carries risks, it might be the safest option depending on the circumstances.

Medical Malpractice & Prolonged Labor

Competent doctors should recognize the risks of prolonged labor and take necessary steps to safely deliver a child. For example, if your baby’s vital signs are abnormal, the doctor should not delay a C-section for no valid reason.

Those parents who suspect they or their child was injured during labor should consider a birth injury lawsuit. This legal claim can compensate for medical care to treat injuries as well as lost income and pain and suffering. These are challenging legal claims to bring, so reach out to an attorney for assistance.

The Editorial Team at Healthcare Business Today is made up of skilled healthcare writers and experts, led by our managing editor, Daniel Casciato, who has over 25 years of experience in healthcare writing. Since 1998, we have produced compelling and informative content for numerous publications, establishing ourselves as a trusted resource for health and wellness information. We offer readers access to fresh health, medicine, science, and technology developments and the latest in patient news, emphasizing how these developments affect our lives.