Of the infinite debates my wife, Liz, and I had in the months leading up to the arrival of our son, Jack, there was really only one thing we fundamentally disagreed on: where Jack would be born. I kind of hoped for a home birth, but Liz—wanting the option of an epidural—insisted on being in a hospital. When she was seven months along, we toured the recently renovated maternity ward and were reassured by how welcoming and bright the space was.
We never made it to the hospital. A week before her due date, Liz began to feel what she thought were the twinges of early labour. Her water hadn’t broken. Knowing that typical early labour for first-time moms can last for six to 12 hours (or more), we tried to relax at home and watch a movie. Within minutes, however, Liz was doubled over. I massaged her back; she took a warm shower. Nothing relieved the rapidly escalating pain. Liz was bleeding at that point and could barely stand up during contractions. Feeling panicky, I called our midwife, Alicia Robinson. While I was on the phone, Liz screamed that she needed to push. Robinson was at our front door 15 minutes later.
Less than an hour had passed, total, so we still thought this couldn’t possibly be active labour. But if this wasn’t active labour, Liz started to wonder how she could withstand the pain that was to come. She insisted that we go to the hospital. But Robinson told us Liz was fully dilated. “If we leave now,” she said firmly, “you’re going to have this baby in an ambulance.” She quickly set up her home-birth equipment in our bedroom, and when Liz climbed on the bed, the baby was already crowning. Just five minutes and three pushes later, Jack was born. The entire labour and delivery took about an hour and 45 minutes.
Such a dramatic and incredibly compressed fast labour is so rare, Robinson later told us, that it has a special name: precipitous labour. Anything shorter than three hours is considered precipitous, and it’s so unusual—only two to three percent of babies arrive this fast—that Robinson, then only a few years into practising midwifery, had never seen it herself. And forget the epidural; your body doesn’t even have time to release the pain-relieving natural endorphins that come with the cycles of conventional labour.
“Precipitous labour is almost impossible to predict,” says Mark Yudin, an OB/GYN at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto. “There are usually no risk factors, and we usually don’t know what causes it.” During a precipitous labour, he says, there may be a higher degree of fetal stress (the baby doesn’t get much of a break from contractions), increased risk of postpartum hemorrhage and more significant physical and emotional challenges.
Afterward, to Liz’s annoyance, she was constantly told by others how lucky she was to have her labour over with so quickly, but she found the experience traumatic—like a Sunday mall walker suddenly thrust into an Ironman triathlon. “You don’t have a chance to get used to being in labour,” says Yudin. “Trying to maintain a sense of calm is very difficult.” Liz puts it more bluntly: “I was in shock for weeks, trying to recover.”
The only real way of knowing that you’re going to have a precipitous birth is if you’ve had one before. (Some women choose to be induced for their second deliveries, so at least they know when the baby is coming and can get to the hospital.) Liz was told that if we were to have another child, he or she would likely show up in less than an hour. “But when a baby comes out that fast,” Robinson says, “they’re almost always healthy, happy babies.” Jack was a good-natured baby and is a good-natured kid. I inadvertently got the home birth I’d hoped for, but a healthy and happy kid is all both Liz and I really wanted.
Keep up with your baby's development, get the latest parenting content and receive special offers from our partners