The latent phase of labour

This part of labour can sometimes last a long time. This page explains what the latent phase of labour is and how to get through it as comfortably as possible.

This information is for mothers who are between 37–42 weeks with a low risk pregnancy. If your pregnancy is considered high risk or you are less than 37 weeks pregnant, contact your maternity unit if you think labour has started or if there is anything you’re worried about.  

What is the latent phase of labour?

The start of labour is called the latent phase. This is when your cervix becomes soft and thin as it gets ready to open up (dilate) for your baby to be born.

For this to happen, you’ll start having contractions, which may be irregular and vary in frequency, strength and length. You may get lots of regular contractions and then they may slow down or stop completely.

When you have a contraction, your womb tightens and then relaxes. For some people, contractions may feel like extreme period pains. Some women say they feel pain in their back and thighs instead of, or as well as, pain in the front of their bump.

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

Sharon

A ‘show’

During pregnancy, your cervix is closed and plugged with mucus, to keep out infection. But when labour starts, the mucus plug may come out. This is called your show and you may notice it in your underwear or when you wipe after going to the toilet. Some women don’t have a show.

This small, sticky, jelly-like mucus may come away in one blob or in several pieces. It’s normal to lose a small amount of blood with the mucus, but contact your hospital or midwife straight away if you’re losing more blood. Bleeding at this stage of labour may be a sign that something is wrong.

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

How long does the latent phase last?

Every woman’s labour is different, so it can be difficult to say how long the latent phase will last. It can take hours or, for some women, days. The latent phase tends to be longer in a first pregnancy.

Should I contact the midwife?

Yes. You’ll probably be offered an early assessment on the phone.

 Your midwife will:

  • ask how you feel (any tightness, bleeding or if your waters have broken)
  • ask you about your birth plans, hopes and concerns
  • ask about your baby's movements, and especially about any changes (you should continue to feel your baby move right up to the time you go into labour and during labour)
  • explain what you can expect in the early stage of labour, including things that might help you manage any pain
  • offer you support and pain relief, if needed
  • 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 recommend that you stay at home until you’re in established labour. You're more likely to have a smoother labour and fewer interventions if you stay at home until labour is stronger and your contractions are regular.

What can I do to ease the pain?

The aim during the latent phase of labour is to stay as calm and comfortable as possible. You may find it helpful to:

  • try to walk or move about
  • try to rest and sleep if your labour starts at night
  • drink fluids, such as water. Sports (isotonic) drinks may also help keep your energy levels up
  • have small, regular snacks, such as toast, biscuits or a banana (although be aware that many women don't feel very hungry and some feel, or are, sick)
  • try any relaxation and breathing exercises you've learned, perhaps in antenatal classes
  • have a massage – your birth partner could help by rubbing your back
  • take paracetamol according to the instructions on the packet – paracetamol is safe to take in labour 
  • have a warm bath or shower
  • gently bounce or rock on a birthing ball
  • use a TENS (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine, which attaches to your back with sticky pads and sends out tiny electrical impulses to block pain signals sent from your body to your brain. This will make you less aware of the pain.

There is not much evidence that aromatherapy, yoga or acupressure work to relieve pain, but you can use them if you want to. Talk to your midwife during your pregnancy if you’re interested in using these therapies.

How will I know when established labour has started?

Established labour is when your cervix has dilated to more than 4cm. At this point, you’ll start having stronger, longer and regular contractions. It’s a good idea to start recording how often your contractions happen and how long they last. This will show you when they become more regular.

Contact your midwife, maternity unit or labour ward if:

  • your contractions are regular and coming about 3 times in every 10 minutes
  • your waters break
  • your contractions are very strong, and you feel you need pain relief – if you are in severe pain during the latent phase you can ask for an epidural
  • you're worried about anything.

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 phasesof labour.

Find out more about the stages of labour

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Sources

NHS Choices. Signs that labour has begun https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/labour-signs-what-happens/#latent-phase-of-labour (Page last reviewed: 09/11/2017. Next review due: 09/11/2020)

The Royal College of Midwives (2012) Evidence based guidelines for midwifery-led care in labour. Latent phase. 
https://www.rcm.org.uk/sites/default/files/Latent%20Phase_1.pdf

NICE (2014). Intrapartum care for healthy women and babies. National Institute for health and care excellence https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/cg190

The Royal College of Midwives (2012) Evidence based guidelines for midwifery-led care in labour. Latent phase. https://www.rcm.org.uk/sites/default/files/Latent%20Phase_1.pdf

NHS Choices. What happens during labour and birth https://www.nhs.uk/conditions/pregnancy-and-baby/what-happens-during-labour-and-birth/#first-stage-of-labour (Page last reviewed: 30/04/2017. Next review due: 30/04/2020)

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Last reviewed on June 5th, 2019. Next review date June 5th, 2022.

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