Can Prolonged Labor Have Potentially Catastrophic Results?


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Prolonged labor, also known as failure to progress, occurs when labor lasts longer than expected. This condition affects around eight percent of births and can have several potential causes. If prolonged labor is mismanaged, the effects on the infant and mother can be catastrophic.

What Is Considered Prolonged Labor?

Each woman goes through labor differently and can have different birth experiences with each pregnancy. Typically, a woman’s first pregnancy will have longer labor than subsequent ones, but this isn’t always the case. Definitions can vary, but a woman is generally considered to be experiencing prolonged labor if her baby is not born after 20 hours of regular contractions for her first pregnancy, over 14 hours for subsequent pregnancies, or over 16 hours if pregnant with multiples.

Prolonged labor can happen in the latent phase (the early phase of labor when most women are told to stay home) or in the active phase of labor (when contractions are close together and women are told to go to the hospital). A prolonged latent phase can be exhausting and emotionally draining for the mother but is unlikely to lead to complications unless the mother becomes too exhausted to proceed. Prolonged labor during the active phase, however, can be dangerous for both the mother and the child if not monitored closely and managed correctly.

Is Prolonged Labor Dangerous?

When labor is prolonged in the active phase, both the mother and infant are at risk of potentially serious complications. The baby is at higher risk of:

  • low or inadequate oxygen, potentially causing damage to the brain
  • fetal distress, meaning the infant may be unable to safely tolerate a vaginal delivery
  • cerebral palsy
  • tearing the placenta from the uterine wall
  • death

Prolonged labor can also put the mother at risk of:

  • postpartum hemorrhaging
  • obstetric trauma (both external tearing and internal damage)
  • infections

When prolonged labor becomes a concern, medical professionals will carefully monitor the baby’s heart rate for signs of fetal distress or problems with the baby’s oxygen levels. If any problems are observed or the labor fails to progress after a certain length of time, then medical intervention might be necessary.

What Increases The Risk For Prolonged Labor?

Not all prolonged labors have an identifiable cause, but several factors make prolonged labor more likely:

  • a large baby
  • a small birth canal or pelvis
  • multiple babies
  • poorly positioned baby
  • weak uterine contractions
  • pain medication
  • emotional factors (worry, stress, fear)

Can Prolonged Labor Be Treated Or Prevented?

Unfortunately, early detection is the only “prevention” that’s typically possible with prolonged labor. However, if a woman has several risk factors and labor seems to be taking longer than expected, even if it doesn’t meet the technical definition, a doctor may still recommend some sort of intervention to move things along.

If a woman’s labor becomes stalled, many doctors will give Pitocin (a synthetic hormone often used to induce labor) to strengthen uterine contractions. When used properly, it can speed up the labor process, but it may not be safe for a baby that’s poorly positioned, not tolerating labor well, or oxygen-deprived.

If the infant has already made it part of the way through the birth canal when labor stalls, the doctor may opt to perform an assisted vaginal delivery using either a vacuum extractor or forceps to help guide the baby out. While these tools are sometimes necessary and certainly helpful in certain circumstances, they can be dangerous if not used correctly by an experienced doctor.

If there is severe fetal distress, signs that the baby isn’t getting enough oxygen, or the labor has stalled to the point that safe, vaginal delivery is not likely, then the baby may need to be delivered by C-section.

Is Prolonged Labor More Dangerous For Preterm Babies?

While prolonged labor is less common in preterm births than in full or post-term births, the danger to the infant is greater if a baby is premature. This is because babies born too soon already have a higher risk of complications and are less able to adapt and recover from difficult labor. For example, an infant born at 28-29 weeks has an 80-90 percent chance of surviving under ideal circumstances, and around ten percent of babies born at this age will suffer long-term complications. When these fragile babies are subjected to intense contractions for a prolonged time, spend too much time in the birth canal, or are forcibly removed with suction or forceps, their chance at survival without long-term complications is diminished even further.

I Think My Doctor Mismanaged My Labor With Catastrophic Results. What Can I Do?

The birth of a baby should be a happy occasion. Still, that excitement can turn to devastation when a doctor’s negligence results in catastrophic injury or death for the mother or child. Suppose your doctor failed to properly monitor your baby during prolonged labor, failed to intervene when medically appropriate, or was negligent in their intervention and caused harm. In that case, you may be entitled to compensation for any injuries that you or your baby suffered. Look for an attorney with experience handling birth injury cases. There are time limits to file a claim, so don’t delay seeking legal help.

Why Choose Ross Feller Casey?

If you or a loved one has been catastrophically injured or died due to a doctor’s negligence during prolonged labor, then Ross Feller Casey is ready to assist you. Our leading team of doctor-lawyers understands that each woman’s labor is different, and what may have been the right medical decision for someone else may not have been appropriate in your situation. We have an unmatched record of success with birth injury and medical malpractice cases and have won hundreds of multimillion-dollar verdicts and settlements for our clients. Contact us today for a free consultation, and let us help you get the justice you and your family deserve.

Disclaimer: Ross Feller Casey, LLP provides legal advice only after an attorney-client relationship is formed. Our website is an introduction to the firm and does not create a relationship between our attorneys and clients. An attorney-client relationship is formed only after a written agreement is signed by the client and the firm. Because every case is unique, the description of awards and summary of cases successfully handled are not intended to imply or guarantee that same success in other cases. Ross Feller Casey, LLP represents catastrophically injured persons and their families in injury and wrongful death cases, providing legal representation in Pennsylvania and New Jersey.