Every labour and birth are different but labour is generally split into three separate stages.
Before labour gets going: the latent phase
The latent phase of labour is when your cervix becomes soft and thin as it gets ready to open up (dilate) for your baby to be born.
You’ll start having contractions, but they won’t be regular at this point. You may get a good run of regular ones and then, just when you think you are getting somewhere, they may slow down or stop completely.
The aim during the latent phase of labour is to stay as calm and comfortable as possible. It’s a good idea to contact your midwife at this point so they can assess you. If you are more than 37 weeks with an uncomplicated pregnancy, you’ll probably be advised to stay at home until your labour is ‘established’'. This is when your cervix opens (dilates) to at least 4cm and your contractions become stronger and more regular.
It can be difficult to say how long the latent phase will last. It can take hours or, for some women, days. The latent stage tends to be longer in the first pregnancy.
There are lots of things you can do to ease any pain, stay relaxed and get ready for the next stage. Find out more about the latent stage of labour.
If you have been advised to stay at home in the latent stage, contact your midwife, maternity unit or labour ward again if:
- your contractions are regular and coming about 3 in every 10 minutes
- your waters break
- you have any bleeding
- your contractions are very strong and you feel you need pain relief – if you are in severe pain during the latent stage you can ask for an epidural
- you're worried about anything.
The first stage of labour
The first stage of labour is also known as established labour. This is when your cervix opens (dilates) to at least 4cm and your contractions become stronger and more regular.
Your midwife will talk to you throughout the first stage about how you’re feeling and whether you need any pain relief. They will also:
- listen and monitor your baby's heartbeat
- check how often you are having contractions
- measure your pulse every hour
- measure your temperature and blood pressure every 4 hours
- check how often you empty your bladder
- offer vaginal examinations.
If your labour is going well, you shouldn't need any more monitoring, though your midwife will also be there to support you emotionally throughout your labour and birth.
If you’re having your first baby, this stage will probably last about 8–18 hours. If you’ve had a baby before it may last 5–12 hours.
Towards the end of the first stage, when the cervix is nearly open, contractions get stronger. This is known as 'transition'. You may not notice when you’re moving from the first to the second stage.