Sudden Birth: What to Do for Precipitous Labor
Sudden birth or precipitous labor is the term for labor and birth that happens very quickly. While the average labor and birth may take half a day or more, sudden birth is typically defined as a labor and birth that lasts fewer than three hours.
Although uncommon, labor and birth can occur unexpectedly fast, resulting in an unplanned home birth or birth on the way to the hospital. Keep reading to find out everything you need to know if this type of emergency delivery happens to you.
Causes of Sudden Birth
The exact cause of sudden birth is not known. However, there are some risk factors that may make you more likely to have a sudden birth. One of the biggest risk factors is having a history of previous rapid labor and birth. Other risk factors include some medical conditions such as high blood pressure or preeclampsia, or a complication of the placenta known as placental abruption.
Related: Birth Story: A Natural Home Birth
Risks and Complications of Sudden Birth or Precipitous Labor
Having a baby without much warning can be scary, and comes with some risks. A sudden birth may be a higher risk to the baby and mother because labor may progress too quickly to get to a hospital. Accidental out-of-hospital births are more likely if you deliver quickly, and home births are more common with precipitous labor.
Unplanned Home Births and Potential Risks to Mothers
Unplanned home births carry a higher risk of some complications. These complications may include more blood loss for the pregnant person due to lack of medical care during birth and postpartum.
Unplanned Home Births and Potential Risks to Babies
Unplanned home births also have a higher chance of temperature regulation problems for their babies. Fast preterm labor is also more likely to result in accidental home birth, and these babies are at risk for problems associated with prematurity, such as low birth weight and trouble breathing.
Having a sudden birth or an unplanned out-of-hospital birth is also more common among people who have not had adequate prenatal care with a healthcare provider. This type of birth may increase risks beyond those experienced at the time of delivery, such as the risk of Sudden Infant Death Syndrome (SIDS).
To help offset some of these risks, make sure to talk with your healthcare provider if attending regular prenatal visits is hard for you to do, and make sure to stay up to date on postpartum visits and child health visits after your baby is born.
What To Do For Sudden Birth When You’re Alone
While sudden birth is rare, there are a few things you can do to prepare, just in case. These exact preparations may depend on where you think the emergency delivery might happen, and who is with you to provide help.
If you are alone and your labor seems to be progressing rapidly, call 911 or your local emergency services. The dispatcher on the phone will be able to give you instructions on the safest way to deliver your baby.
If you have time while waiting for emergency services to arrive, you should gather dry towels or clothing garments. You can also get a bowl to catch the placenta after the baby is born. If you have an urge to push, breathe slowly; panting and blowing can help.
How to Deliver a Baby By Yourself
- Sit, squat, or kneel on the floor or your bed on top of a clean towel so that your baby doesn't fall onto a hard surface. Have the other towels or dry garments next to you, to dry your baby off right away.
- Once the head is delivered, you will feel another contraction and can push the body out. If your baby is born with the amniotic bag around their head and face, this can be punctured with fingers; the baby's face will need wiping so that the airway is clear and the baby can breathe.
- Once the baby has been born, dry the baby off and if the umbilical cord is long enough, place the baby on your abdomen or chest. Then cover the baby with a blanket or a dry towel to help the baby stay warm.
- You do not need to do anything with the umbilical cord - it’s okay to wait for the first responders from the fire department or the police department to help you with this when they arrive at your location.
- Try to record the time of birth.
- Keep the baby skin-to-skin and try to start breastfeeding as soon as possible. This may encourage the placenta to deliver more quickly.
- If you feel strong cramping and an urge to push after the baby has arrived, the placenta may be delivered. Try to catch the placenta in a bowl, and leave it attached to the baby until help arrives.
Sudden Birth At Home With A Partner Or Support Person
If your baby is coming very quickly and you are at home and have an extra person to help you, start by having that person call emergency services. They can follow any instructions given to them over the phone.
Follow the same advice given above, and have your support person gather some dry towels. If you have a bulb syringe available, have them grab this as well in case the baby has a lot of fluid in their nose and mouth.
An assistant can watch for a sudden bulging of the perineum and for your baby's head to appear, at which point they can guide you to push. If your support person is able to help, they can then gently guide the baby out and up onto your belly or chest.
Use dry towels to rub your baby and stimulate him or her to start breathing and work to clear the baby’s airway with the bulb suction. Keep the baby dry and covered, and wait for emergency services to arrive. Putting the baby on your breast stimulates contractions to deliver the placenta.
How to Deliver the Placenta During a Home Birth
An assistant can watch for a gush of blood or a lengthening of the cord, a sign that the placenta has detached and is ready to deliver. Put the placenta in a bowl to be checked, or wrap it in a towel. The fire department or police department personnel will cut the umbilical cord when they arrive.
Sudden Birth In The Car/On The Way To The Hospital
If you feel the urge to push or feel the baby’s head emerging while you are in the car en route to the hospital, your partner should pull over in a safe area and put the hazard lights on. If your baby is born in the car, your partner can put him on your belly for warmth. If you have towels or other clean garments in your hospital bag, dry your baby, wrap him in a clean towel or garment while he or she is against your skin, and call an ambulance.
Sudden Birth When You Didn’t Know You Were Pregnant
Sudden birth is more likely to happen in second and subsequent labors, or if you've had a previous sudden birth. If you do not believe that you are pregnant, but are female and have severe abdominal pain that comes and goes, the first recommendation is to go to a hospital for evaluation.
If you have this pain accompanied by a large gush of fluid, or if you feel as though a baby is coming or reach down and feel a baby’s head, follow the directions above to prepare for a birth, and call emergency services to tell them you think you are having a baby. If you remember the date of your last period, it would be helpful to tell them so they know if the baby may be premature.
A preterm baby may need extra help to breathe when they are born and may need additional temperature support as well. This can help the emergency delivery responders be more prepared when they arrive, and they can have an appropriate pediatrics provider ready at the hospital to assess your baby.
Be Prepared for an Unexpected Birth or Emergency Delivery
While precipitous birth or sudden birth that occurs before you can get to a hospital is uncommon, this type of emergency delivery can be scary. If you are worried about experiencing this type of birth, talk to your doctor or healthcare provider about ways to be prepared.
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Precipitous Labor. Cleveland Clinic, 2022. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/24258-precipitous-labor
Safari, K., Saeed, A.A., Hasan, S.S. & Moghaddam-Banaem, L. (2018). The effect of mother and newborn early skin-to-skin contact on initiation of breastfeeding, newborn temperature and duration of third stage of labor. International Breastfeeding Journal (13); 32. https://internationalbreastfeedingjournal.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s13006-018-0174-9
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