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Obstet Gynecol. 2010 Apr;115(4):705-10. doi: 10.1097/AOG.0b013e3181d55925.

The natural history of the normal first stage of labor.

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  • 1Division of Epidemiology, Statistics and Prevention Research, Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, National Institutes of Health, Bethesda, Maryland 20892, USA.

Erratum in

  • Obstet Gynecol. 2010 Jul;116(1):196.



To examine labor patterns in a large population and to explore an alternative approach for diagnosing abnormal labor progression.


Data from the National Collaborative Perinatal Project were used. A total of 26,838 parturients were selected who had a singleton term gestation, spontaneous onset of labor, vertex presentation, and a normal perinatal outcome. A repeated-measures analysis was used to construct average labor curves by parity. An interval-censored regression was used to estimate duration of labor stratified by cervical dilation at admission and centimeter by centimeter.


The median time needed to progress from one centimeter to the next became shorter as labor advanced (eg, from 1.2 hours at 3-4 cm to 0.4 hours at 7-8 cm in nulliparas). Nulliparous women had the longest and most gradual labor curve; multiparous women of different parities had very similar curves. Nulliparas may start the active phase after 5 cm of cervical dilation and may not necessarily have a clear active phase characterized by precipitous dilation. The deceleration phase in the late active phase of labor may be an artifact in many cases.


The active phase of labor may not start until 5 cm of cervical dilation in multiparas and even later in nulliparas. A 2-hour threshold for diagnosing labor arrest may be too short before 6 cm of dilation, whereas a 4-hour limit may be too long after 6 cm. Given that cervical dilation accelerates as labor advances, a graduated approach based on levels of cervical dilation to diagnose labor protraction and arrest is proposed.



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