What is the latent phase of labour?

The latent phase of labour… so what does this mean? Am I in labour or not?!

Pregnant woman with clock painted on belly.

By Kate Pinney, Tommy’s midwife

This elusive stage of labour is often not talked about enough in antenatal appointments and classes therefore when it happens, it can be confusing, frustrating and leaving parents unsure what to do and when.  Hopefully this will help!  

This advice is for mothers who are going through their first labour and are between 37-42 weeks with a low risk pregnancy.  If your pregnancy is of ‘high risk’ or you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, then you will need to contact your maternity unit for further advice.

What is the latent phase of labour?

When you are having your first baby your cervix has to transform from a long, firm tube stuck right round the back behind your baby’s head to being flat and soft, gradually opening up for the baby to be born.  In order this to happen, there needs to be contractions, and lots of them!  

Often the pains start off in your back and you can feel period type aches and pains which increase in strength and turn into contractions.  These contractions can stop and start, varying in frequency, strength and length.  You may get a good run of regular ones and then just when you think you are getting somewhere they can reduce or stop completely.

As well as the contractions you may also noticed a bloody mucus in your underwear or upon wiping after going to the toilet, this will be your show which is normal.

How long does the latent phase of labour last?

This is different for every woman, for some, this is a short time and others it can go on for days.  The aim is to get to established labour which is when your cervix is dilated at least 4cm, is soft and stretchy and you are having strong, regular contractions.  

What can you do to help?

  • drink plenty of fluids, such as non fizzy isotonic drinks and water
  • try to eat small regular snacks, such as toast, biscuits or a banana
  • make sure you are emptying your bladder every couple of hours, sometimes you may not feel like you need to but it is important to do so
  • using a birthing ball or keeping upright and mobile can really help, but in between having some rest, so do have a lay down if you can or a warm bath.
  • hot water bottles can also really help especially with the period type aches and pains
  • you can also take paracetamol as per the recommended dose of at least 4 hours in between tablets with no more than 4g in 24 hours.

When do I need to contact a midwife?

If you are booked for a home birth it is a good idea to let the midwifery team know that you have started having some contractions, they may not come out to you straight away but it is helpful that they know what is happening. It's recommended that you do stay at home for as much of this stage as you can, this way you will be more relaxed and there is lots of research to show that you are more likely to go into labour more quickly.

If you are experiencing regular contractions or if your waters break then this is a good sign that it is time to ring the maternity unit especially if your waters are not clear but blood stained or green.  They may send you home again after checking you and the baby out if it is not quite the right time yet.

Additionally, if you have any concerns about your baby’s movements, are having any bleeding vaginally which is not mucousy, constant pain which not coming and going or you have any concerns at all then contact your maternity unit for advice.

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