The latent stage of labour

The latent stage of labour is when your labour starts. Find out how long it can last, and how to get through it as comfortably as you can.

The latent stage is a term that’s used to describe the very start of your labour. It usually happens when you are at least 37 weeks pregnant, known as full-term. In healthy full-term pregnancies, your midwife will suggest that you stay at home during the latent stage of labour. 

If you think labour has started and you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, your pregnancy is high risk, or you are worried about a pregnancy symptom, contact your midwife or maternity unit straight away. 

How does labour start?

The start of labour, or latent stage, is when your cervix becomes soft, short and thin ready for labour. Contractions will start to open (dilate) your cervix.

When you have a contraction, your womb tightens and then relaxes. This will feel different to Braxton Hicks contractions, which do not tend to be painful. Labour contractions are usually short and irregular to begin with. They will become more frequent, stronger and longer as your labour goes on.

This latent stage is not always a smooth process. You may feel as though the contractions are getting more regular, only for them to slow down or stop for a while.

For some people contractions may feel like extreme period pains. Others get backache instead of, or as well as, pain in the front of their bump.

During a contraction your belly will feel hard to the touch. You may feel the urge to go to the toilet as your baby presses down on your bowel.

“Before the birth of my first baby, I went for a walk with my husband and moaned all morning about a lower backache. I didn’t realise at the time my labour was starting! Looking back, I can see it was the latent stage.”


What is a show?

A show is something that can also happen during the start of labour. During pregnancy, your cervix is closed. It’s plugged with mucus to prevent infection. But when labour starts the mucus plug may come out. This is called your show, and you may notice it in your knickers or when you wipe after going to the toilet. 

The mucus plug looks like a sticky, jelly-like blob. It may come away in one go or in pieces. Not everyone has a show or notices they have had one.

It is normal for the mucus plug to be streaked with blood, but contact your hospital or midwife right away if you are losing more blood or pass any blood clots. Bleeding at this stage of labour may be a sign that something is wrong.

Call your midwife for advice if the mucus plug comes out before you are 37 weeks pregnant.

How long does the latent stage of labour last?

Every labour differs so it can be hard to say how long the latent stage will last. It can take hours or, for some people, days. This stage tends to be longer in a first pregnancy, lasting an average of 9 to 12 hours. If you’ve been in labour before, it is likely to be shorter, lasting around 7 to 9 hours.

Waiting for things to progress can feel frustrating. The latent stage is usually the longest part of labour, but this is for good reason. Your womb muscles need this time to build towards the first stage of labour (established labour).

You may find these tips help to get you through early labour:

  • Move around if labour starts during the day. Gentle movement, and the downward pressure of your baby, may help your cervix to open. Walk about or gently bounce and rock on a birth ball.
  • Rest and try to get some sleep if labour starts at night.
  • Drink plenty of water and have small snacks, such as toast, biscuits or a banana, to keep your energy levels topped up. Be aware that many people do not feel very hungry and some feel, or are, sick. If you do not feel like eating then try sipping an isotonic drink instead.
  • Distract yourself with music, podcasts or the TV. 

Should I contact my midwife?

Yes. They will assess you over the phone to start with.

Your midwife will:

  • Ask how you feel and whether you have any tightness or bleeding.
  • Ask if your waters have broken.
  • Ask you about your birth plans, hopes and concerns.
  • Ask about your baby's movements, and any changes to those. (You should be able to feel your baby move right up to the time you go into labour and even during labour.)
  • Explain what you can expect in the early stage of labour. That includes things that might help you cope with the pain.
  • Tell you who to contact next, and when.
  • Give advice and support to your birth partner if you have one.

If all is well, your midwife will say that you should stay at home until you are in established labour. You’re more likely to have a smoother labour if you stay at home until labour is stronger and your contractions are regular.

What can I do to ease the pain of early labour?

Try to stay calm and get comfy. You may find it helps to:

  • Try any relaxation and breathing techniques you have learned in antenatal classes.
  • Have a massage. Your birth partner could help by rubbing your back.
  • Take paracetamol according to the instructions on the packet – it’s safe to take in labour.
  • Have a warm bath or shower.
  • Use a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine. This attaches to your back with sticky pads and sends out tiny electrical impulses to block pain signals that go from your body to your brain. It can help to make you less aware of the pain. 

Some people find aromatherapy, hypnobirthing, yoga or acupressure really help to ease the pain. There’s no firm evidence that they work, but you may find it helps to try them. Talk to your midwife during your pregnancy if you’re interested in using these therapies for labour.

If you are finding it very hard to cope with the pain of early labour, you could ask to go to the maternity unit to be assessed. Your midwife may be able to prescribe stronger pain relief that you can use at home while you wait for labour to progress. If you want an epidural, because your pain is severe, you will need to go to hospital.

How will I know when established labour has started?

Established labour is when your cervix has dilated to more than 4cm. As you move from latent labour into active labour, you're likely to have stronger, longer and more frequent contractions.

Try to note how often your contractions happen and how long each one lasts. Your birth partner can perhaps help with tracking your contractions, or you can use an app to track them yourself.

Contact your midwife, maternity unit or labour ward if:

  • your contractions are regular and coming at least every 5 minutes
  • your waters break
  • your contractions are very strong, and you feel you need pain relief
  • you are at all worried.

Your baby’s movements

You should continue to feel your baby move right up to the time you go into labour and during labour. Contact your midwife or maternity unit if you have any concerns about your baby’s movements during the latent stage of labour.

Read more about what to do when labour starts.

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Review dates
Reviewed: 07 February 2024
Next review: 07 February 2027