RD Latent phase of labour – what is it?

Some women tell tales of long labours. But it doesn’t have to be you if you’re in the know when it comes to your latent phase, says our midwife


Here’s a little secret I’m going to share with you. It’s something most women don’t know, but it’s vital when it comes to handling giving birth. There’s this stage of labour, you see, and once you know when it’s arrived and how to stay relaxed during it, I can promise you the rest of the birth (except for any unforeseen complications) should be a breeze and won’t seem like any time at all .The sciencey name for this magical stage is the latent phase of labour, and here’s how you find out when it’s happening, take control of it, and use it to your advantage…

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It’s a latent phase

There have been lots of studies and research done around the latent phase and we know that if women can recognise it, have good support and stay relaxed in their own homes, they are more likely to go on and have a normal birth with a positive experience. Your midwife should be able to tell you if you’re in the latent phase by talking to you and asking you to describe what’s happening.

By having that support and reassurance, even if it’s just via telephone, chances are you’ll then continue to feel relaxed and it’ll only be a matter of time before your labour becomes more established. Having identified the latent phase, when you do turn up on the labour ward, you’ll be in established labour and welcomed with open arms.

Your body has all sorts of clues to let you know when you’re in labour

It’s all about your cervix

The textbook definition of labour is the ‘onset of strong, regular, painful contractions with dilation of the cervix’. It’s commonly accepted that labour isn’t considered established until the cervix (neck of the womb) has stretched open to 4cm.

The latent phase of labour is what happens to you before this point. It’s your body’s preparation for labour and it can take days, or sometimes even weeks. There will be some painful contractions and some change to your cervix.

Your cervix does some mightily clever stuff to enable you to give birth. But amazing as it is, it can’t go from its normal state (think of a 2cm long tube with a dimple in it) to its established labour state of a thin stretchy 4cm hole in a matter of minutes. As well as your cervix opening, it has to move forward, become shorter, thinner and stretchier, in readiness to give birth. All this takes time and this is what’s happening during your latent phase, often known as the longest part of labour.

Understanding what happens can help make a caesarean birth an involving experience.

When you’re blatantly latent

You know when you hear those stories about women who’ve been in labour for a week and were being repeatedly sent home from hospital?

They weren’t actually in labour, they were in their latent phase.

You’ll know when you’re in it when you start getting irregular contractions that vary in pain from the uncomfortable to the ‘Ow! That stings’.

“I called my midwife and asked if she would come and see me as I’d been contracting all night but it was still bearable,” says Nicola Robinson, 24, from Melton Mowbray, mum to Jessica, 3 months. “When she examined me and said my cervix was only 2cm dilated I felt disheartened, but she explained that my body had already done a massive amount of work as my cervix was thin and soft. I kept going for another few hours by which time the contractions were more regular and I knew then without any doubt that I was in labour. When I got to the labour ward I was 5cm dilated and Jess was born just six hours later.”


Embrace the phase

The worst thing you can do when you’re in the latent phase is to start thinking of yourself in actual labour. Psychologically, that’s going to be exhausting. Instead, tell yourself ‘Good, my body’s starting to get ready to give birth’.

Keep it to yourself too. The minute you start to tell people that labour’s beginning the phone calls will start and the contractions will stop.

The best thing you can do is carry on as normal. I even went to the supermarket and made sure my cupboards were stocked up during my latent phase.

“During my first pregnancy I went to the labour ward four times before I was allowed to stay,” says Anna Conway, 31, from Stafford, mum to James, 2, and Harry, 5 weeks. “I felt so embarrassed being sent home. Second time round I was determined not to turn up until my contractions were so strong that I couldn’t speak through them. Sure enough, when I got to the ward I was in established labour and Harry was born in the birthing pool three hours later.”


When the going gets tough

It’s really not in your interests to stay on the labour ward during this stage of labour as often fear and tension can cause it all to go off the boil, which isn’t what you want. If the contractions are really strong, regular and painful, and yet your cervix hasn’t dilated very much, it might be worth asking to go to the antenatal ward for a couple of hours, or ask if you can have a bath.

Occasionally, when the contractions have reached this strength, the cervix can suddenly dilate quickly, particularly in women who’ve already had children. However, during the latent phase the contractions will still be irregular and lasting less than a minute.

If you have any doubt or need reassurance, call your community midwife, or labour ward midwife. That’s what they’re there for – to support and reassure you, and get you ready for the last big push.

It’s likely that you’ll give birth to your twins in hospital.

You’re in the latent phase if…

  • A couple of paracetamol and a bath ease the discomfort.
  • You have what feels like contractions/backache/period-like pains which stop and start over a few days.
  • Changing the position you’re sitting in makes the pain ease off.
  • You can still talk when it’s hurting.
  • You’re still wondering ‘Am I in labour?’. When you’re actually in labour, believe me, you’ll know.

7 ways to handle the latent phase:

1. Stay relaxed and stay put. The labour ward is completely the wrong environment for you during this stage.

2. Pace yourself. Don’t leap out of bed at 3am and start marching around doing things. You’ll need your energy for when labour really kicks in.

3. Use your community midwife. If you need reassurance give her a call, or see if she can squeeze you into her clinic, or visit you at home.

4. Distract yourself. Watch a DVD, phone your mates. Someone I know even baked a ‘new baby’ cake.

5. Don’t call the cavalry yet. Avoid immediately calling your partner home from work – this stage could last a few days, remember.

6. Think about your breathing. If it starts to feel uncomfortable, focus on taking long breaths out, keeping your face relaxed.


7. Have some ‘you time’. Get your partner to give you a relaxing massage followed by a soothing bath. Take advantage before the baby arrives.

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