Merck Manual

Please confirm that you are a health care professional

honeypot link

Protracted Labor

By

Julie S. Moldenhauer

, MD, Children's Hospital of Philadelphia

Last full review/revision Jul 2021| Content last modified Jul 2021
Click here for Patient Education

Protracted labor is abnormally slow cervical dilation or fetal descent during active labor. Diagnosis is clinical. Treatment is with oxytocin, operative vaginal delivery, or cesarean delivery.

Cervical dilation usually accelerates after going from 4 to 6 cm (1 General reference Protracted labor is abnormally slow cervical dilation or fetal descent during active labor. Diagnosis is clinical. Treatment is with oxytocin, operative vaginal delivery, or cesarean delivery... read more ). Normally, cervical dilation and descent of the head into the pelvis proceed at a rate of at least 1 cm/hour and more quickly in multiparous women.

General reference

  • 1. Zhang J, Landy HJ, Branch DW, et al: Contemporary patterns of spontaneous labor with normal neonatal outcomes. Obstet Gynecol 116 (6):1281–1287, 2010. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0b013e3181fdef6e

Etiology

Protracted labor may result from fetopelvic disproportion (the fetus cannot fit through the maternal pelvis), which can occur because the maternal pelvis is abnormally small or because the fetus is abnormally large or abnormally positioned (fetal dystocia Fetal Dystocia Fetal dystocia is abnormal fetal size or position resulting in difficult delivery. Diagnosis is by examination, ultrasonography, or response to augmentation of labor. Treatment is with physical... read more ).

Another cause of protracted labor is uterine contractions that are too weak or infrequent (hypotonic uterine dysfunction) or, occasionally, too strong or close together (hypertonic uterine dysfunction).

Diagnosis

  • Assessment of pelvic dimensions, fetal size and position, and uterine contractions

  • Often response to treatment

Diagnosis of protracted labor is clinical.

The cause must be identified because it determines treatment.

Assessing fetal and pelvic dimensions and fetal position (part of a full obstetric examination Ideally, women who are planning to become pregnant should see a physician before conception; then they can learn about pregnancy risks and ways to reduce risks. As part of preconception care... read more ) can sometimes determine whether the cause is fetopelvic disproportion. For example, fetal weight > 5000 g (> 4500 g in diabetic women) suggests fetopelvic disproportion.

Uterine dysfunction is diagnosed by evaluating the strength and frequency of contractions via palpation of the uterus or use of an intrauterine pressure catheter.

Diagnosis is often based on response to treatment.

Treatment

  • Oxytocin

  • Sometimes operative delivery if the 2nd stage of labor is prolonged

  • Cesarean delivery for fetopelvic disproportion or intractable hypotonic dysfunction

If the 1st or 2nd stage of labor proceeds too slowly and fetal weight is < 5000 g (< 4500 g in diabetic women), labor can be augmented with oxytocin, which is the treatment for hypotonic dysfunction. If normal progress is restored, labor can then proceed. If not, fetopelvic disproportion or intractable hypotonic dysfunction may be present, and cesarean delivery Cesarean Delivery Cesarean delivery is surgical delivery by incision into the uterus. Up to 30% of deliveries in the US are cesarean. The rate of cesarean delivery fluctuates. It has recently increased, partly... read more may be required.

If the 2nd stage of labor is prolonged, forceps or vacuum extraction Operative Vaginal Delivery Operative vaginal delivery involves application of forceps or a vacuum extractor to the fetal head to assist during the 2nd stage of labor and facilitate delivery. Indications for forceps delivery... read more may be appropriate after evaluation of fetal size, presentation, and station (2 cm below the maternal ischial spines [+2] or lower) and evaluation of the maternal pelvis.

The 2nd stage of labor is considered prolonged in the following cases:

Hypertonic uterine dysfunction is difficult to treat, but repositioning, short-acting tocolytics (eg, terbutaline 0.25 mg IV once), discontinuation of oxytocin if it is being used, and analgesics may help.

Treatment reference

  • 1. Spong CY, Berghella V, Wenstrom KD, et al: Preventing the first cesarean delivery: Summary of a Joint Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, Society for Maternal-Fetal Medicine, and American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists Workshop. Obstet Gynecol 120 (5):1181–1193, 2012. doi: http://10.1097/AOG.0b013e3182704880

Key Points

  • Protracted labor may result from fetopelvic disproportion or from uterine contractions that are too weak or infrequent or, occasionally, too strong or close together.

  • Assess fetal and pelvic dimensions and fetal position, and evaluate contractions by palpating the uterus or using an intrauterine pressure catheter.

  • If the 1st or 2nd stage of labor proceeds too slowly and fetal weight is acceptably low, augment labor with oxytocin; if treatment is unsuccessful, the cause may be fetal disproportion or intractable hypotonic dysfunction, possibly requiring cesarean delivery.

  • If the 2nd stage of labor is prolonged, consider forceps or vacuum extraction if appropriate after evaluating the fetus's size, position, and station and the maternal pelvis.

  • For hypertonic uterine dysfunction, consider repositioning, short-acting tocolytics, discontinuation of oxytocin if it is being used, and analgesics.

Click here for Patient Education
NOTE: This is the Professional Version. CONSUMERS: Click here for the Consumer Version
Professionals also read

Test your knowledge

Bacterial Vaginosis
Bacterial vaginosis is vaginitis due to an alteration in vaginal flora in which lactobacilli decrease and anaerobic pathogens overgrow. Which of the following is least likely to contribute to this condition?
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
Download the Manuals App iOS ANDROID
 

Also of Interest

 
TOP