Prolonged Labor, Delayed C-Section and Hypoxic-Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE)

Medical professionals have established timelines for what is considered a “normal progression” of labor. If some of the markers for progress (such as cervical dilation and effacement) are delayed or stalled, staff must evaluate whether there is an ‘arrest of labor.’ If there is, medical professionals can initially attempt a number of different interventions to assist in the labor process. Prolonging a labor for too long carries health risks for both mother and child, including oxygen deprivation in the child, hemorrhaging, permanent injury, infection and trauma. Where there is prolonged or arrested labor, C-section should be performed to avoid traumatic labor and delivery.

What Is Prolonged Labor?

Stages of delivery; pregnancy; labor and delivery; childbirth

Prolonging the second stage of labor can cause HIE

Labor is considered normal when uterine contractions result in progressive dilation and effacement of the cervix.  Normal labor progresses slowly through the initial (latent) phase.  When the cervix is dilated more than 4 cm, the more rapid, active phase of labor begins.  During active labor, the cervix should progressively dilate at a rate of no less than 1.2 cm per hour (for first babies) – 1.5 cm per hour (for subsequent babies).   If labor progresses more slowly than this, a woman may be experiencing an arrest of labor.  Arrest of labor is an absence of progress – measured by cervical dilation and descent of the presenting part of the baby –  for at least 2 hours.

There are competing studies defining prolonged first and second stages of labor. Some studies have found that labor is prolonged when the first and second stage of labor combined is greater than 20 hours for a first pregnancy, and greater than 14 hours for women with prior births. Other experts say that prolonged labor occurs after 18 –24 hours of the combined first and second stages. Prolonged labor is more common in a first pregnancy and in women over the age of 35 years.

Causes of Prolonged and Arrested Labor

Prolongation and arrest of labor basically have two causes: inadequate contractions and / or mechanical impediments, both of which are discussed below.  Listed below are complications that can cause prolonged and arrested labor.

Fetal Malpresentations

The normal position of the baby is longitudinal, with the baby’s spine parallel to the mother’s spine. The baby lies in a completely flexed position with the chin touching the chest and the arms and legs flexed in front, and normally faces the mother’s back for a smooth delivery.

Any change in the normal position can cause abnormal labor.  Malpresentations include the following:

  • A breech presentation in which the baby’s legs or buttocks present first
  • A face presentation in which the baby’s face is in position to exit the birth canal first
  • A deflexed position of the head in which the neck of the baby is less flexed, straight or extended
  • The position of a baby in the uterus is such that the head of the baby is presenting first and is tilted to the shoulder, causing the baby’s head to no longer be in line with the birth canal (asynclitism).

Cephalopelvic Disproportion (CPD)

CPD occurs when the size of the baby’s head is larger than the size of the mother’s pelvic passage or birth canal, or the baby presents in a position that will not allow her to descend through the pelvis.  Causes of CPD include:

  • Overall increase in the baby’s size.  This can be caused by gestational diabetes and other conditions that cause a baby to be macrosomic (weight is > 4000 or 4500 grams) or large for gestational age.  Other conditions that may contribute to the baby’s head or body becoming too large during pregnancy include post-term pregnancies (post-maturity) and hydrocephalus (fluid in the baby’s brain that leads to swelling).
  • Clinically small maternal pelvis
  • Bony growths on the pelvis (pelvis exostoses)
  • Malpresentation of the baby
  • A bone in the spine slips out of position and onto the bone below it.

Problems with Uterine Contractions

Inadequate uterine activity is the most common cause of prolongation and / or arrest disorders in the first stage of labor, and it refers to uterine activity that is either not sufficiently strong or not appropriately coordinated to dilate the cervix and expel the baby.

The uterine muscle may fail to contract properly when it is grossly stretched, as in twin pregnancy and hydramnios (excess amniotic fluid).  Presence of tumors in the uterine musculature can also affect uterine contraction. 

Inadequate contractions are treated with uterine stimulation. This is generally accomplished with Cytotec or Pitocin / Oxytocin.  Too much of these drugs can cause hyperstimulation, which can cause birth asphyxia and hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) in the newborn.  When contractions are too fast and strong, the placenta often cannot recharge with an adequate supply of oxygen-rich blood for the baby. As hyperstimulation continues, the baby’s oxygen deprivation gets progressively worse.  If the contractions are too close together (consistently more than 5 contractions every 10 minutes), the drugs should be stopped. Use of Pitocin or Cytotec requires very close monitoring of the baby’s heart rate; the baby must be quickly delivered at the first signs of distress.

Excessive use of painkillers or anesthesia can cause inefficient uterine action and may prevent voluntary effort by the mother to deliver the baby during the second stage of labor.  Research shows that anesthesia can increase the length of the second stage of labor, and that it increases the use of Pitocin, as well as the frequency of forceps and vacuum extractors during delivery.

Cervical Dystocia or Stenosis

The term cervical dystocia is used when the cervix fails to dilate properly and remains at the same position for more than 2 hours after the latent phase of labor. The cervix may fail to dilate when it is fibrosed due to previous operations, such as cone biopsy (type of cervical biopsy where a cone-shaped piece of tissue is removed), or due to the presence of tumors.

Signs and Symptoms of Prolonged Labor and Arrested Labor

  • Labor extends for more than 14 – 20 hours, depending on whether it is a first birth.
  • The mother looks exhausted and distressed; dehydration may be present and the mouth may be dry due to prolonged mouth breathing.
  • Pain may be more at the back and sides of the body, radiating to the thighs, rather than from the uterus in the abdomen. This is due to excessive and prolonged pressure over the muscles and ligaments of the back.
  • Labor pains may initially be severe, frequent and prolonged, but later decrease and become very mild as the muscles become fatigued.
  • Pulse rate is often high due to dehydration, exhaustion and stress.
  • The large intestines are dilated and can be felt along both sides of the uterus as large, thick structures filled with air.
  • The uterus is tender upon touch and does not relax fully between contractions.
  • Fetal distress may develop.
  • Membranes may or may not rupture early.  In early rupture, there is a risk of infection of the baby if proper antibiotics are not prescribed.

Risks of Prolonged Labor and Arrested Labor

Fetal Risks:

Maternal Risks:

  • Intrauterine infections
  • Trauma and injuries in the maternal birth passage (eg: cervical tears, vaginal wall tears).
  • Postpartum hemorrhage.
  • Postpartum infection.

Diagnosing Prolonged and Arrested Labor | Preventing Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE)

In diagnosing prolonged and arrested labor, the medical team will likely examine the following:

  • Whether signs and symptoms of the condition are present
  • The duration of labor
  • The frequency and strength of contractions
  • Whether labor is abnormal according to Friedman’s three stages of labor. A normal course of labor consists of the following stages:
    • Stage 1 of labor: There are uterine contractions leading to complete cervical dilation.  This stage is divided into the latent and active phases. In the latent phase, irregular uterine contractions occur with slow and gradual cervical effacement and dilation. The active phase is demonstrated by an increased rate of cervical dilation and descent of the baby. The active phase usually starts at 3-4 cm of cervical dilation, and is subdivided into the acceleration, maximum slope, and deceleration phases.
    • Stage 2 of labor: This is defined as complete dilation of the cervix to the delivery of the infant.
    • Stage 3 of labor: Stage 3 involves delivery of the placenta.

Treating Prolonged and Arrested Labor to Prevent Birth Injuries and Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy (HIE)

Pitocin / Oxytocin

If a woman is in the active phase of labor (cervix is at least 5 to 6 cm), physicians usually administer Pitocin / oxytocin and wait 4 hours.  If the oxytocin does not work and arrest of labor has ensued, a C-section delivery usually is performed.

Physicians have used Pitocin / oxytocin to help avoid the need for C-section delivery.  However, research shows that Pitocin administered during the first stage of labor does not decrease the chances of a C-section delivery or delivery using forceps.

On the other hand, high dose oxytocin regimens (compared to low dose regimens) have been found to decrease the rate of C-sections and duration of labor, but were also associated with hyperstimulation of the uterus, or tachysystole, which is a condition of excessively frequent uterine contractions.  This can be damaging to the baby in several ways, including a decrease in supply of blood and oxygen to the baby, which can cause birth asphyxia and hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).

Pitocin / oxytocin must be used with caution because at any dose, there is a risk of tachysystole, although the risk and degree of tachysystole is less at lower doses.

Pitocin / oxytocin may not be used when the following conditions are present:

  • The mother is in the first stage of labor.
  • The mother is in the second stage of labor before crowning of the baby’s head.
  • There is loss of tone in the uterine musculature (uterine atony).
  • The mother has preeclampsia, eclampsia, or sepsis.
  • There is significant CPD.
  • The baby is in an unfavorable position, such as shoulder or face presentation.
  • The baby is in distress and delivery is not imminent.
  • Vaginal delivery is contraindicated, as in cases of active herpes genitalis, total placenta previa, vasa previa, and a prolapsed umbilical cord.
  • Adequate uterine activity fails to achieve satisfactory progress.

Artificial Rupture of Membranes

Artificial rupture of the membranes, or an amniotomy, is a procedure whereby the physician ruptures the woman’s membranes with a finger or special tool in order to accelerate labor.  An amniotomy may only be performed if the following criteria are met:

  • The mother should be in active labor (cervical dilation of 4 or more cm).
  • The mother should be at term.
  • The head should be engaged (at 0 station or more).

Research shows that an amniotomy does not accelerate spontaneous labor.  There has been no research that compares amniotomy to no intervention in women with intact membranes and established labor abnormalities, such as prolonged and arrested labor.

Risks of amniotomy include the following:

  • The baby may turn to a breech position.
  • There is an increased risk of umbilical cord prolapse.
  • There is an increased risk of infection if there is prolonged time between rupture and birth.  Infection can cause the baby to have sepsis, meningitis, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE) and cerebral palsy.

Operative intervention

During the second stage of labor, prompt use of operative intervention is indicated for babies showing abnormal fetal heart rates on electronic monitoring, or when CPD is likely because of macrosomia, malposition, or a clinically small maternal pelvis.

Forceps and vacuum extractors

These are instruments that are used to assist vaginal deliveries.  If used properly, they can speed up delivery of the baby.  If used improperly, they can cause traumatic birth injuries to the baby which can be permanent.  Injuries associated with improper use of these instruments include the following: brain bleeds and hemorrhages, seizures, ischemia, Erb’s palsy, hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy and cerebral palsy.


Prolonged Labor and Delayed C-Section: Hypoxic Ischemic Encephalopathy LawyersA C-section is performed when a vaginal delivery would put the baby’s or mother’s life or health at risk.  Some conditions that require the baby to be delivered immediately include fetal distress, uterine rupture and cord prolapse.  Sometimes physicians fail to perform an emergency C-section when one is indicated, or they wait too long to perform one.  Other times, the C-section may be ordered, but the physician lacks skill in the procedure, or the hospital is ill-equipped for it.  Delay in performing a C-section can lead to permanent injuries in the baby, such as cerebral palsy and hypoxic ischemic encephalopathy (HIE).

If a woman is at risk of having any type of abnormal labor, intensive clinical monitoring should be done.  This includes recording the pulse, blood pressure and fetal heart sound (FHS) every hour, and dilation of the cervix at intervals of two hours.  Fetal heart rate strips should be checked even more frequently.  If, in spite of the above procedures, labor fails to accelerate, or if fetal distress develops, an emergency C-section should be performed.

It is essential for the medical team to monitor the mother and baby very closely during labor and delivery, especially if there are indicators that the labor is or will be prolonged or arrested.  The medical team must be prepared to handle complications and to promptly perform a C-section delivery if necessary.  It is negligence when a mother and baby are not properly assessed and monitored.  Failure to act skillfully and quickly also constitutes negligence.  If this negligence leads to injury of the mother or baby, it is medical malpractice.  

Trusted Birth Injury and HIE Attorneys Helping Children Since 1997

Trusted Birth Injury and HIE Attorneys Helping Children Since 1997Pursuing legal help for a birth injury from delayed delivery is one of the first steps you can take to secure a better life for your injured loved one. Obtaining compensation from a successful medical malpractice case will better allow your family to afford treatment, therapy, lifestyle adjustment, adaptive equipment, life care and more.

At Reiter & Walsh ABC Law Centers, our team of birth trauma attorneys, nurses and professionals exclusively focus on birth injury cases. Our narrow focus allows our team to take on the most complex birth injury cases and build litigation experience in a wide array of complications, medical errors and injuries. We handle cases all over the country, in states such as Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, Tennessee, Wisconsin, Arkansas, Mississippi, Washington D.C., and more. During your free legal consultation, our birth injury attorneys will discuss your case with you, determine in negligence caused your loved one’s injuries, identify the negligent party, and discuss your legal options with you.

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Video: Abnormal and Prolonged Labor

Prolonged and arrested labor can cause serious injuries such as hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, intracranial hemorrhages, seizure disorders, cerebral palsy, and more. In this video, Reiter & Walsh’s in-house nurse Andrea Shea discusses the risks of letting mothers labor too long without proper intervention.

Related Articles and Blogs


  • Friedman, EA, ed. Labor clinical evaluation and management. 2nd ed New York. Appleton-Century – Crofts, 1978.
  • Zhang J, Troendle J, Mikolajczyk R, et al. The natural history of the normal first stage of labor. Obstet Gynecol 2010; 115:705.
  • Zhang J, Landy HJ, Branch DW, et al. Contemporary patterns of spontaneous labor with normal neonatal outcomes. Obstet Gynecol 2010; 116:1281.
  • Peisner DB, Rosen MG. Transition from latent to active labor. Obstet Gynecol 1986; 68:448.
  • Harper LM, Caughey AB, Odibo AO, et al. Normal progress of induced labor. Obstet Gynecol 2012; 119:1113.