The Average Pushing Time for a First Baby Might Surprise You

Curious how long the average first-time parent's pushing time is? Get answers about the key moments of birth from a labor nurse.

woman in labor
Photo: Gorodenkoff/Shutterstock

If this is your first pregnancy, it's normal to have questions about labor. One I hear often: How long is a reasonable amount of time to push before it's time to worry? How long is too long? What happens if too much time passes? The short answer: It depends. The long answer, is, well, a bit longer. But don't worry, your birth team will be by your side helping you through the pushing process.

Read on to learn all about pushing during labor and delivery from the average pushing time for a first baby to when it's time to stop pushing.

The Average Pushing Time for a First Baby

When it comes to delivering first babies, it's very normal to push for three hours or more. According to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists (ACOG), there are a lot of different factors that can go into how long pushing will take before the baby is born.

The ACOG explains that pushing—which is medically defined as the second stage of labor—can be impacted by things like:

  • How big your baby is
  • What position the baby is in
  • Your body type and size
  • How long you have been fully dilated before pushing
  • If you have had an epidural

All of those factors could determine how long you push, with epidurals having a significant impact on pushing duration across the board. For instance, the ACOG found that for some people, an epidural can extend the pushing phase by over a full hour.

More important than the length of time a person pushes, however, is how the pregnant person and the baby are doing. Your birthing team will be monitoring your fatigue and the health of your baby more than watching the clock. As long as neither you nor your baby shows any signs of distress or appears in danger, you may be able to push as long as it's deemed safe.

However, how long you're allowed to push will also depend on your medical history as well as the doctor or midwife's policies and those of the facility.

How 'Laboring Down' Affects Pushing Time

The second stage of labor (aka the "pushing phase") can also be extended by a practice known as "laboring down." Some birthing teams will encourage laboring people to take breaks from pushing or have the person "labor down" instead of pushing.

Laboring down means that the pregnant person stops actively pushing and allows the uterus's contractions to do some of the work for them while they rest. Laboring down can be done during the second stage of labor, but it's not active pushing. It can help move the baby down further into the birth canal so that when pushing is resumed, it may take less work to deliver the baby.

Of course, laboring down can be much more challenging when the person is unmedicated, so it's usually reserved for people who have an epidural or aren't feeling an overwhelming urge to push yet.

How Long Is Too Long to Push?

Again, the answer here is that it depends on how the baby and laboring person are doing. There isn't always a "cut-off time" that a doctor or midwife will use to determine when someone has to stop pushing. Instead, your birthing team will assess many factors, such as how long you have been pushing, what progress has been made, and most importantly, how you and your baby are tolerating labor.

The birthing team will monitor your baby's heart closely during labor, especially during pushing, because some babies do not tolerate the stress of pushing very well. If the baby's heart is slowing down or speeding up in specific ways that indicate distress and there is no sign that delivery is close, your doctor may recommend a C-section.

There are different reasons your baby's heart rate may change during pushing. For instance, a heart rate that's slowed down during pushing may indicate a problem with the placenta, that the umbilical cord's being pinched or yanked, or that your circulation is compromised.

The good news is that your birthing team will be keeping a close eye on both you and your baby and if any potential problem is detected, they will communicate with you and make a plan that is best for both of you.

Key Takeaways

When it comes to the question of the average pushing time for a first baby, just keep in mind that what's "average" doesn't provide a complete picture. In reality, there's a pretty big range of "normal." You may push for only a few minutes or you may need several hours of pushing to bring your baby into this world.

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