If you see the phrase “precipitous labor” written on a medical chart, it might not mean much to you. But chances are, you know someone who’s experienced it.

We’ve all heard stories of people who have gone into labor and delivered their baby within a very short period of time. Or maybe you’ve heard stories of women who’ve given birth in the car on the way to the hospital. Precipitous labor is labor that happens very fast. So, it’s worth getting the scoop so you can be ready in case it happens to you.

You may be wondering what, exactly, is precipitous labor? Basically, it’s the experience of being in labor and then giving birth less than 3 hours after regular contractions start — that is, when a stable pattern of contractions has developed. Three hours may seem like forever if you’re the one having the contractions, but that’s the threshold that the experts use to define a very quick labor and delivery.

By comparison, a regular labor for people who’ve never given birth before would last somewhere between 3 and 30 hours after regular contractions start and between 3 and 15 hours in people who have previously delivered a baby.

Labor can be very unpredictable, especially in the early stages. Usually, in early labor, you’ll start feeling some mild, irregular contractions. But after a while, those contractions will become stronger and more consistent. That’s a sign that your cervix is starting to open up and become thinner and shorter, preparing for the eventual birth of your baby. The whole process, however, can take many hours.

If your contractions suddenly speed up and become really intense before very much time has elapsed, that could be a warning sign that you’re experiencing precipitous labor.

Other possible signs:

  • You might not feel like you’re getting a break between contractions.
  • You feel the intense to bear down and push.

If you’ve never gone through labor before, you might not know exactly what to watch out for. Think: fast and intense. The contractions start, immediately speed up, and they don’t let up.

In fact, you and your partner may be concerned that the contractions are so close together. You’re feeling a strong urge to push, even though you feel like you just started having contractions, and you might not be anywhere near the hospital or birthing center.

If you think you may be in precipitous labor, don’t wait to call your doctor or midwife. Call right away and describe your situation. They may want to know when your contractions started and how far apart they are. They’ll help you figure out the best way to proceed.

Sometimes, you can’t tell in advance who is going to experience an extremely rapid labor and delivery.

But some people do seem to be more at risk for precipitous labor than others. Women with a history of precipitous labor are more likely to experience another rapid labor and delivery. That means that those women who delivered their babies in the car on the way to the hospital are more likely to have another lickety-split delivery with future babies.

Research also suggests that women who have experienced placental abruption, a condition that occurs when the placenta detaches too soon from the uterus, may also be at greater risk.

Other factors that seem to be risk factors for precipitous labor include:

  • chronic high blood pressure
  • fertility treatments
  • induction of labor with prostaglandin E2 (PGE2), a medication that dilates the cervix
  • intrauterine growth restriction
  • a baby on the small size, or to get technical, a fetus that weighs less than 2500 grams (which translates roughly to 5.5 lbs.)

In a best-case scenario, you’ll just push the baby out in the blink of an eye, and nothing goes wrong and everyone’s fine. In many cases, there aren’t any significant problems or complications with precipitous labor.

But, sometimes, there can be complications that develop from precipitous labor. For one, that the epidural or other pain management strategy that you’d been counting on might be a no-go.

Other potential complications to the mother can include:

  • heavy bleeding or hemorrhaging from the vagina or uterus
  • tearing or lacerations to the cervix or vaginal tissues
  • lacerations to the perineum, which is the area between the vaginal opening and the anus
  • shock after giving birth

Meanwhile, your healthcare team may also be worried about your baby. When a mother goes into precipitous labor, the baby is at increased risk for infection if the actual delivery happens in an unsterile environment instead of in a delivery room at a hospital or birthing center. Your baby might also be more likely to breathe in some of the amniotic fluid in this situation.

However, just because you’re at risk for potential complications doesn’t mean that you will experience them. Also, if you’re delivering a smaller baby, some research suggests that you may be less likely to develop those lacerations to your cervix, vagina, or perineum.

Precipitous labor may sound a little scary, especially if you don’t feel prepared for the possibility. The best thing to do is to talk to your doctor if you think you may be at risk for precipitous labor­ — or even if you’re not sure if you’re at increased risk.

It’s always a good idea to make a plan, just in case precipitous labor happens to you. Share the plan with your partner so you’ll both be ready in case things seem to be speeding along a little faster than you might have anticipated.

In the meantime, be sure to attend all your prenatal care visits, so your doctor can keep track of how you and your baby are progressing.