The start of labour is known as the latent phase. During this early labour 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 labour.
If you are under 37 Weeks Pregnant and showing signs of possible labour, contact your doctor or midwife immediately for advice, as you could be showing signs of going into preterm labour.
For more information, read our article Preterm Labor | All You Need To Know.
What is the latent phase of labour?
During the latent phase of labour, your body and your baby are gearing up for the main event.
There are three stages of labour:
- First stage. The cervix goes from closed to fully dilated at 10cm
- 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 labour
The first stage of labour contains two phases – the latent phase and the active phase.
The latent phase typically describes the early stage of labour where the cervix goes from being closed (not dilated at all) to about 4cm dilated.
The active part of labour (also known as established labour) 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 active labour begins you’ll start to experience strong contractions that are closer together and follow a pattern . Once active labour 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 off like a tube. It’s about 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 labour 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 labour.
As labour 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 labour?
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 labour process.
During the latent phase, early labour 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 latent labour, they will become more frequent.
You’ll be able to feel your womb tighten and then relax. You might notice a change in the way they feel as they begin to progress into labour contractions.
Braxton Hicks Contractions and early labour 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 labour progresses, and tightenings intensify, this helps the baby move into a better position.
Latent phase of labour – what to expect
This phase of labour typically tends to be the most unpredictable, especially for first-time mums.
Although it can feel frustrating at times, it’s important to recognise that it’s a really important part of the labour 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 for as long as possible during latent labour, unless there are any concerns.
Although it might be tempting to make a dash for the hospital as soon as you start to feel labour 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 labour take?
Although every labouring 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, mums who have experienced labour before tend to have a shorter latent phase, compared with women having their first pregnancy.
Latent phase of labour – symptoms
Everyone will experience latent labour slightly differently, 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 during 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 labour begins, or only as you start to experience labour 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 diarrhoea can be a sign that your little one might soon be on the way
- Waters breaking. For some women their waters will break in the early stages of labour. The amniotic fluid around your baby will be released and you might feel yourself ‘leaking’. The amniotic fluid should be clear in colour; a brown or greenish-yellow tinge means your baby has had a bowel movement and has passed what is known as meconium.See: Meconium In Amniotic Fluid – Is It Dangerous?
- Nesting. Many women experience nesting behaviour before labour starts. Sometimes high energy levels lead us to feel an urge to clean, organise 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 behaviours – normal symptoms many women experience, either in the run up to, or during early labour.
Can contractions stop in the latent phase of labour?
The simple answer is yes. As we mentioned before, the latent phase of labour tends to be the most unpredictable, because of its tendency to stop and start. Although this can be frustrating, it’s a normal part of the process and doesn’t mean anything is wrong.
Everything that happens in this phase of labour 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 labour painful?
For some women, latent labour 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 labour, 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 labour pain management
There are many things you can do, to try to enhance your comfort level in labour.
You might have already heard of some of these:
- Breathing and relaxation techniques. Breathing exercises and relaxation tools help to bring a sense of calm to the body. When we feel more calm and relaxed, our tolerance for pain goes up, making contractions feel more manageable
- 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 travelling to the spinal cord and the brain, which helps to relieve pain and relaxes muscles. Some women find a TENS machine works really well in early labour
- Birthing aids. A birthing ball, for example, can be used in various ways to promote comfort in labour. 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, but be sure to stay hydrated while in the bath
- 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 labour 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, in early labour, should you wish to.
- Sleep. This might sound crazy, but if your contractions ease for a period of time, make the most of it and try to sleep if you can.
Prolonged latent phase of labour
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 labour 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 labour 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 labour; therefore, if we’re feeling particularly stressed or anxious, it can lead to a prolonged latent phase.
Does my baby move during latent phase of labour?
It is important to recognise that babies will continue to move throughout the labour process – both in early labour and once active labour begins.
Feeling your baby move is a reassuring sign that your baby is well and contented; this movement should not stop during labour.
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?