15 Things That Could Go Wrong During Labor

Childbirth is unpredictable, and complex situations are not uncommon. You can pack your hospital bag months in advance, write a detailed birth plan, and complete every item on your to-do list, but there are no guarantees when it comes to having a baby. Wouldn't it be nice in a time like this that there were though, that you were guaranteed not to feel pain, that you and your baby will be A-OK.

When you’re in active labor, adopt the mantra go with the flow. If or when problems arise, stay calm. By getting worked up when things aren't working out the way you planned, you're unnecessarily putting yourself and your baby through stress. Instead, reach deep within yourself and focus on what is going right, use your deep breathing techniques to find your happy place once more and remember that things are going to work out fine.

So your natural childbirth is turning into an emergency c-section, the bigger picture here is that your baby is still going to be safely delivered into the world. Whether your drug free birth resulted in you getting an epidural for the pain, or you needed help getting the baby out, you should know that during birth, surprises are always just around the corner. Just be aware that these 15 mishaps can happen during delivery.

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15 Breech Baby

Babies twist, turn, and move all around the womb. In the last few weeks of pregnancy, the living space in the uterus can become cramped. As early as week 32 and as late as week 38, most babies have settled into a head-down position but some don’t. Around 4 percent of babies wind up in breech positions; this means their butts or their feet are positioned down to come out first through the cervix.

There are reasons for wanting to adjust a poorly positioned fetus. For instance, if a baby’s feet are positioned to come out first, there is a chance your baby could become tangled and trapped in the umbilical cord. A breech baby can make a vaginal birth difficult, and sometimes impossible.

The chances are good that your infant will be head-down during birth as most breech babies reposition before delivery. But, if your little one is still primed to come out feet-first, a cesarean section may be necessary to prevent your baby from becoming stuck.

14 Cord Prolapse

The umbilical cord is the lifeline to the baby. It’s a vital link that sends nutrients and oxygen to the fetus while carrying away waste. If the cord is pushed through the cervix and becomes visible from the vagina before delivery, this is known as a cord prolapse. In some cases, the birth will switch to an emergency C-section delivery.

There is a reason why a cord prolapse is considered high risk for a vaginal delivery. If the cord precedes the baby, the mother’s contractions can cause intense pressure that can compress the cord. This situation would severely reduce the blood supply, cutting off oxygen to the baby. Needless to say, this can lead to major complications.

It is an uncommon complication, occurring in about 1 in every 300 births. However, if it happens, an emergency C-section may be scheduled.

13 Slow Labor

Sometimes, a labor fails to progress. This can happen if the cervix does not completely dilate. As a result, labor slows down or stops completely. A slow labor needs to be diagnosed in the second stage of labor after a woman has dilated to at least 5 cm. (A diagnosis in the first stage of labor would be premature as labor usually progresses slowly in this stage.)

Failure to progress is not only exhausting but risky. Not only does the mother become emotionally and physically drained, the fetus can become distressed. Slow labor is a reason for 1 in 3 cesarean births.

12 Meconium Aspiration

Sometimes, babies pass a stool during labor. Baby’s first solid waste is known as meconium. If this thick, tar-like substance is released into the amniotic fluid and the baby breathes it in, it can block the airways. As a result, oxygen levels can be reduced, putting stress on the baby. This situation can slow or completely stop labor.

Meconium aspiration is an uncommon complication, occurring in about 5-10 percent of births. However, if it happens, an emergency C-section may be scheduled.

11 Placenta Previa

The placenta is a flat, circular organ that produces hormones to support the life of a fetus. The major functions are to supply nourishment and oxygen while filtering waste away from the baby. It grows to the weight of approximately 2-3 pounds.

During the third stage of labor, the mother delivers the placenta. But if there is a problem with this organ, it can pose a risk for both the baby and the mother.

Placenta previa occurs when the placenta settles in a lower section of the uterus, blocking the opening of the cervix. Sometimes, the placenta partially obstructs the cervix. If the uterus grows enough to move the placenta away from the opening, a vaginal birth is possible. If the area remains covered, a cesarean section is necessary.

10 Macrosomia

If you are expecting a baby, a vaginal birth is probable. However, a large baby can put a vaginal birth in jeopardy. If your fetus is estimated to be over 8 lbs 13 oz, you officially have a big baby. The term for a baby heavier than this weight is fetal macrosomia.

Because there is a risk of a big baby becoming stuck, your maternity team will assess if your baby can safely descend the birth canal. If not, you may be a prime candidate for a C-section or an early induction.

9 Cephalopelvic Disproportion

When a baby’s head is too big or a woman’s pelvis is too narrow for a baby to descend the birth canal, this is known as cephalopelvic disproportion. This scenario is rare, occurring in approximately 1 out of 250 births. However, many slow labors have been attributed to CPD.

Once an accurate diagnosis of CPD has been made, a cesarean section is the safest option. The good news is women who have been previously diagnosed with CPD can still give birth vaginally. According to the American Journal of Public Health, 65 percent of pregnant women who had CPD in earlier pregnancies delivered vaginally in subsequent pregnancies.

8 Epidural Side Effects

Epidurals are in demand. More than 50 percent of women opt for this method to reduce labor pain. Between specific segments of the spine, a guide needle is injected, through which a small tube is fed. The needle is withdrawn, leaving a fine tube in place. The anesthetic flows through the tube directly around the nerves of the spine, temporarily reducing the sensation in the lower half of the body. The tube is taped down to keep it from slipping out.

While the use of an epidural has its benefits, it can also delay delivery for two reasons. First, women with an epidural tap can find it difficult to use their legs since the lower half of their bodies feel numb. Lack of mobility can make it harder for a baby to find the pelvis.

Second, the numbing effect of the epidural reduces muscle strength from the waist down. As a result, women have more difficulty pushing the baby out on their own. This is why many women who use epidurals often need their babies to be pulled out with the aid of forceps or vacuum caps.


Most women who previously had a cesarean section are still candidates for future vaginal births. However, there is a slight risk of uterine rupture for a vaginal birth after a cesarean. Pregnant women will need to meet certain criteria for a VBAC; If they don’t, a subsequent cesarean birth is in order. A vaginal birth is certainly possible but these details will need to be discussed with your doctor or your midwife.

There are risks associated with C-sections. While it happens every day, C-sections are in fact invasive surgeries. Discuss your birthing options with your obstetrician or midwife during your next checkup. They can figure out if you may be a candidate for a cesarean birth.

6 Nuchal Cord

It is rare that your baby will become tangled in the umbilical cord. Still, nuchal cords occur in 10-37 percent of all births. This is when the umbilical cord coils around the baby’s neck.

This situation doesn’t necessarily mean immediate danger for your little one but if the baby’s heart rate decreases after contractions, the cord may be pulling too tight. If fetal monitoring shows a prolonged abnormal heart rate or signs of inadequate amounts of oxygen, a C-section may be advised to prevent further complications.

5 Placental Abruption

Placental abruption occurs when the placenta prematurely detaches from the uterine wall. Even if the placenta becomes partially detached, this can deny the baby oxygen and nutrients.

If severe bleeding is present in the third trimester or during labor, this is a sign of placental abruption. An emergency cesarean birth may be necessary if it’s determined that the baby and the mother are in trouble.

4 Fetopelvic Disproportion

The pelvis is made up of several bones joined together by cartilage and ligaments. Throughout pregnancy, the pelvic joints relax and stretch to accommodate a growing baby.

In a vaginal labor, contractions help push the baby down. This pressure is enough to temporarily separate the pelvic bones. But, when a woman’s pelvis is too narrow for a baby to be pushed out, this is known as fetopelvic disproportion. If your pelvic dimensions are small, you may be a likely candidate for a cesarean section.

3 Bad Labor Position

The optimal labor position is one that is gravity-friendly. Standing, squatting, and rocking on all fours are positions that open up the uterus. This gives the baby more room and encouragement to descend the birth canal and maneuver through the pelvic bones.

Unfortunately, many women give birth lying flat on their backs or resting on their tailbones. These positions limit the mother’s mobility which restricts the baby’s movement. Under these circumstances, the baby’s route can hit a dead end. Repositioning the laboring mother can sometimes fix the problem.

2 Fetal Distress

The hospital staff needs to stay on top of potential complications so they can quickly address complex situations. This is why a baby is closely monitored during labor and delivery. One common method of monitoring the fetus is through a fetal heart rate monitor.

Fetal distress commonly occurs when there is a lack of oxygen going to the baby. If fetal monitoring shows a prolonged abnormal heart rate or signs of inadequate amounts of oxygen, a baby will not be able to deliver without a medical intervention. A C-section may be advised to prevent further complications.

1 Shoulder Dystocia

One unusual complication that can happen during birth is shoulder dystocia. This occurs when the baby’s head is pushed out but one shoulder becomes wedged in the pelvis preventing the baby from being born.

Shoulder dystocia is considered an emergency situation. The maternity team will not panic but the baby will need to be dislodged quickly. The concern is the lack of oxygen to the baby. The mother’s contractions can cause intense pressure that can compress the cord, cutting off the connection to the baby. Also, the baby’s lungs could compress, making it difficult to breathe air.

Most babies who experience shoulder dystocia are often not big. Regardless of size, a baby who cannot squeeze through to the outside world will need emergency treatment.

No matter what happens during labor, be happy that the arrival of your baby is just around the corner. The anxiety may be built because not knowing what to expect is enough to freak out soon-to-be, first-time parents. But, take pleasure in knowing that you are informed and you will be prepared if or when emergencies arise.

Sources: What to Expect, American Pregnancy Association, WebMD, Mayo Clinic

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