The start of labor is known as the latent phase. During this early labor phase, the cervix begins to make changes and your baby is getting ready to be born.
This is an exciting time as you know your little one will soon be on the way.
Here’s a one-stop guide to everything you should know about the latent phase of labor.
What is the latent phase of labor?
During the latent phase of labor, your body and your baby are gearing up for the main event.
There are three stages of labor:
- First stage. The cervix goes from closed to fully dilated at 10cm – also known as complete dilation
- Second stage. This includes the pushing phase and the birth of your baby
- Third stage. Delivery of the placenta and membranes.
Active phase vs latent phase of labor
The first stage of labor contains two phases – the latent phase and the active phase.
The latent phase typically describes the early stage of labor where the cervix goes from being closed (not dilated at all) to around 4cm dilated.
The active phase of labor (also known as established labor) is where the cervix dilates from 4cm to 10cm.
In order to do this, the cervix has to soften and shorten before it starts to dilate.
Generally, once you are into active labor you’ll start to experience strong contractions that follow a pattern and are closer together. Once active labor starts, it’s unlikely to stop and cervical dilation will probably progress more.
To find out more, read our article How Long Does It Take To Dilate From 4cm to 10cm?
What is cervical effacement?
The cervix starts out like a tube. It’s around 3cm in length with an opening (to the uterus) at the top and an opening (to the vagina or birth canal) at the bottom. Before labor begins, the cervix will feel quite firm, a bit like the tip of your nose.
The cervix goes through a process of softening and shortening, known as effacement. During this process, the tube becomes shorter so that the two openings meet and effectively become one.
These cervical changes can begin to happen in the latter weeks of pregnancy, prior to the onset of labor.
As labor progresses, the cervix will also change in consistency. It will go from feeling thick and firm, to soft and stretchy, to enable your baby to pass through when he’s ready to be born.
Related reading: Dilation Of The Cervix.
What happens during the latent phase of labor?
Most women wonder What Causes Labour To Start? Researchers now believe that when little ones are ready to be born, they release a substance from their lungs which triggers the mother’s hormones and begins the labor process.
During the latent phase, early labor has begun.
Some women experience Braxton Hicks from as early as 28 weeks, but many won’t feel them until the latter weeks of pregnancy.
You might have already experienced Braxton Hicks contractions throughout your pregnancy, but during the latent phase, they will become more frequent.
You’ll be able to feel your womb tighten and then relax. You may notice a change in the way that they feel as they begin to progress into labor contractions.
Braxton Hicks Contractions and early labor contractions help the cervix efface.
Your baby will also be using this time to prepare for a grand entry. He’ll be trying to get himself into the best position to be born.
As labor progresses, and tightening intensify, this helps the baby move into a better position.
Latent phase of labor – what to expect
This phase of labor typically tends to be the most unpredictable, especially for first time moms.
It’s important to recognize that although it can feel frustrating at times, it’s a really important part of the labor process, and everyone who has a physiological (vaginal) birth will go through it.
When do I need to go to the hospital?
If you’re planning to give birth in a maternity unit or hospital, it’s usually recommended that you stay at home as long as possible during the latent phase, unless there are any concerns.
Although it might be tempting to make a dash for the hospital as soon as you start to feel labor is beginning, your body will work more efficiently at home during this stage, especially if this is your first baby.
Things generally progress more smoothly when you feel more relaxed and in your own environment.
If you’re planning a Home Birth, the latent phase is a good time to let your midwife know that things are happening, but she might not come to see you until things start to progress a bit further. Speak to your midwife straight away, though, if you have any concerns.
How long does latent phase of labor take?
Although every laboring woman goes through this process, the time frame might be different.
For some women it can happen over a matter of minutes or hours; for many it can take much much longer. A study undertaken in 2019, they found that the median duration of the latent phase of labor was longer than described in previous studies.
There isn’t a right or a wrong way, and there’s no way of knowing how long it’ll take your body to go through this process, as we’re all different.
There are some things you can do, to try to speed up the process; we’ll discuss them below.
On the whole, moms who have experienced labor before tend to have a shorter latent phase, compared with labor in a first pregnancy.
Latent phase of labor symptoms
Everyone will experience latent labor slightly different, but there are some common symptoms.
If this is not your first pregnancy, it might feel different this time around.
You might experience some or all of the following symptoms:
- Period-like pains. You might feel mild to moderate cramping in the lower abdomen. As things progress they could feel like more extreme period pains. Some women might also feel this as backache.
- Irregular contractions. It’s normal to experience contractions that are irregular in pattern. This is a positive sign your body is getting ready to bring your baby into the world
- Mucus Plug. Also known as the ‘show’, the mucus plug is a clear, jelly-like substance that sits in the cervix in pregnancy and acts as barrier for bacteria. As the cervix begins to soften, the mucus plug can come away. This might happen days or weeks before labor begins, or only as you start to experience labor contractions
- Loose stools. Sometimes, the body goes through a process of ‘clearing out’, as the baby’s head gets lower in the pelvis and begins to put pressure on the bowel. A bout of diarrhea can be a sign that your little one might soon be on the way
- Nesting. Many women experience nesting behavior prior to labor. Sometimes high energy levels lead us to feel an urge to clean, organize and tidy the house before baby’s arrival. This is a way of preparing our ‘nest’ as a place of safety and comfort for our babies.
These are all very common and normal symptoms and behaviors many women experience, either in the run up to, or in early labor.
Can contractions stop in the latent phase?
The simple answer is yes. As we mentioned before, the latent phase of labor tends to be the most unpredictable, because of its ability to stop and start. Although this can be frustrating, it’s a normal part of the process and doesn’t mean that anything is wrong.
Everything that happens in this phase of labor is paving the way for you to meet your bambino.
It’s normal for women to experience regular contractions and then for them to slow down or stop over a period of time. If this happens, don’t panic.
Instead, take the opportunity to rest. The contractions will start up again when your body is ready.
Is latent phase of labor painful?
For some women, latent labor will be merely uncomfortable; for others, it will feel more intense. Everyone experiences and copes with pain differently.
There are many factors that can influence how we experience the sensations of labor, including the baby’s position, our perception of pain, how relaxed or comfortable we feel, what position we’re in, and whether or not we are feeling supported, to name just a few.
Latent phase of labor pain management
There are many things you can do, to try to enhance your comfort level in labor.
You might have already heard of some of these:
- Breathing and relaxation techniques. Breathing exercises and relaxation techniques help to bring a sense of calm to the body. When we feel more calm and relaxed our pain threshold goes up
- Transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation. The TENS Machine For Labor is a small device with sticky pads that go on your back. The device sends tiny electrical impulses to the area; it produces a tingling sensation. The tiny impulses block pain signals traveling to the spinal cord and the brain, which helps to relieve pain and relaxes muscles. A TENS machine can work well in early labor
- Birthing aids. A birthing ball, for example, can be used in various ways to promote comfort in labor. Bouncing or leaning over a birthing ball can provide a lot of comfort in the early phases
- Warm bath. This can help you relax and release muscle tension in the body
- Heat pack. It can be applied to painful areas of the back or lower abdomen to provide comfort and relief
- Changing positions. Staying in active, mobile, and upright positions is generally more comfortable in labor than lying down. Not only does it provide comfort, it also encourages baby’s head into the best position for birth
- Gentle massage. A massage from a birth partner can help relieve sore muscles and release positive ‘feel good’ hormones into your system
- Pain relief. It’s safe to take simple pain relief, such as paracetamol (Tylenol) in early labor, should you wish to.
Prolonged latent phase of labor
The latent phase can stop and start over an extended period of time, sometimes even days.
For some women, it might involve bouts of regular contractions, and then periods where there is nothing, or little, in terms of a pattern. For others, there is very little let up and this can be exhausting.
What adds to the frustration is that even though you might be experiencing painful contractions, not a lot of change is happening to the cervix. A prolonged latent phase will occur before active labor takes place, therefore the cervix is likely to be less than 4cm dilated.
There are a number of reasons why this might occur, and it usually has something to do with your baby’s position.
If your baby is not in a good position, uneven pressure will be put on the cervix. This will affect the length of time it takes to open and dilate and for labor to progress.
Other possible reasons for a prolonged latent phase are:
- Pelvic or uterine abnormalities, which can affect baby’s ability to get into a good position. In this case, babies are more likely to be in a transverse or breech position, or not engaged in the pelvis
- Uterine fibroids, which can affect the pattern of contractions, as well as your baby’s position
- Cephalopelvic disproportion (CPD), which is a condition where the baby’s head is disproportionately sized to the mother’s pelvis. This means the baby has difficulty moving through the pelvis and into the birth canal
- Fear or feeling anxious or unsafe. Adrenaline can pause or halt labor; therefore, if we’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious, it can lead to a prolonged latent phase.
Does my baby move during the latent phase of labor?
It is important to recognize that babies will continue to move throughout the labor process – both in early labor and once active labor begins.
Feeling your baby move is a reassuring sign that your baby is well and contented; this movement should not stop during labor.
It’s normal for you to feel your baby moving once contractions begin. You might even feel more movement than usual, as baby begins to get into a good position for birth.
If you ever have concerns about your baby’s movements, speak to your doctor or midwife straight away. A lack of movement could be a sign that something isn’t right.
Always trust your instinct and get checked out.
Related reading: Do All Babies Go Quiet Before Labour?