Latent phase of labour – signs, symptoms, and when it becomes active labour

What does it mean when you're having contractions, but they're far apart, quite slow, and happening over a period of days or even weeks? We asked 3 expert midwives to explain what the latent phase or prodromal labour really means for you...

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You might be wondering why you’re experiencing painful labour-like contractions… but the birth itself doesn’t seem to be moving along.

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Every labour is different – but it’s quite common for women to experience this before their active labour really kicks in. It’s known as ‘prodromal labour’ or the ‘latent phase’ of labour.

Here, we’ll explain what exactly you can expect from the latent phase, why it happens, how long it lasts, when it becomes active labour – and what you need to know if you think it’s happening to you.

What is the latent phase?

The latent phase is essentially the 1st part of 1st stage of labour, “during which cervix is softening, shortening, ‘ripening’ and dilating up to 3-4cm,” – explains Royal College of Midwives (RCM) Professional Policy Advisor Clare Livingstone.

“After you’ve dilated to 4cm, you’d be considered to be in active labour. Tightenings will often stop and start, irregularly, but can be painful and intense.

“It may continue for several days, on and off, sometimes with a blood-streaked mucousy ‘show’ evident on underwear or on wiping.”

What causes the latent phase of labour?

Some women experience prodromal labour because it’s their body’s way of preparing itself for active labour.

Your cervix is readying itself to dilate (eventually) all the way to 10cm, to allow you to give birth to your baby vaginally.

“Our cervix does some mightily clever stuff to enable you to give birth,” says midwife Anna Richley. “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.”

Not every mum-to-be will experience it, but it is a pretty common way for the first signs of labour to show.

How long does the latent phase last?

My Expert Midwife’s Lesley Gilchrist says the latent phase varies in how long it can last – it’s different for every woman who experiences it.

“Prodromal labour can last a few hours, but can often last days and unfortunately, in some women, it can be weeks,” she explains.

It’s not a brilliant thought, is it, the idea that it could go on for weeks? Lesley encourages you to think about it in another way…

“It is your body’s way of preparing and toning the uterus for when active labour starts, so try to think of it as a positive step towards labour and birth if you are experiencing it.”

What do latent phase contractions feel like?

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Contractions during the latent phase are likely going to feel strong, like they’re getting stronger, pretty powerful and often painful.

For some, contractions may feel like next-level, extreme period pains. This is because your womb tightens, and then relaxes, every time it contracts.

Did you get any Braxton Hicks contractions earlier in your pregnancy? Well, they may feel kinda similar to those, too – except more intense.

“You may have experienced Braxton Hicks in your pregnancy, well prodromal labour contractions feel like this but start to feel stronger and more powerful,” continues Lesley.

“Some of the tightenings or contractions will last longer than others and 2 or 3 may come together, followed by a much longer gap.”

It may feel super annoying to be getting these long-lasting contractions with big gaps, when you’re hurting and you just want have your baby already. 

We know it might seem futile, but keep thinking positively – and use any mantras, relaxation, mindfulness or hypnobirthing techniques you’d planned for your active labour to help get you through 💜

How is the latent phase different from Braxton Hicks?

Braxton Hicks and the latent phase are easy to muddle up, but they’re not the same thing. “Braxton Hicks are essentially practice contractions,” explains Clare.

“They’re your body’s way of practising for labour. Braxton Hicks contractions can cause a very tight, uncomfortable sensation for some women.

“Braxton Hicks can occur throughout pregnancy but are not usually felt until 2nd or 3rd trimester. The latent phase of uncomplicated labour can be expected from 37-42 weeks.”

Braxton Hicks is usually ‘painless’, and feels more like a tightening, according to Clare. Now, we reckon it depends on you as to whether or not you feel much pain, but they’re typically not thought to be as painful as prodromal labour contractions.

Of course, if you have any concerns about any sensations you’re experiencing during your pregnancy, you should check in with a medical professional, like your GP or midwife, ASAP.

Can I sleep during the latent phase?

If you’re in labour limbo, it might feel weird going to bed to get some shut-eye when your next contraction might be round the corner.

The good news is: if you’re sleepy, and comfortable enough, you can definitely go to sleep. It’s not like you can spend days and weeks wide awake, right?

The not-so-good news: You might find nodding off a bit tricky as your contractions come and go as they please, as Lesley explains…

“For many women, the prodromal stage of labour can prove to be quite challenging as it can be tiring and disturb sleeping patterns.

“This can often lead to it becoming an emotional time, so having some coping strategies to employ will help you to deal with it.”

Again, do you have any hypnobirthing techniques prepared? Affirmation cards? Meditation or relaxation practices you enjoy?

Now’s the time to employ them… and do what you need to do to make yourself feel as comfy as poss at home.

How can you ease prodromal labour contractions?

Whatever you do, though, please don’t stress or panic. What you’re experiencing is totally normal – and there’s a lot you can do to make yourself more comfortable.

Midwife Lesley tells us these are her top tips for easing contractions during the latent phase:

  • “Have a warm, soothing bath or shower with your favourite bath soak, shower gel or essential oils diffusing
  • Use a heat pack or hot water bottle on any sore or aching parts of your body
  • Build a nest with cushions, duvets and your favourite things around you that help you feel relaxed and calm
  • Use a birthing ball to sit on to help open your pelvis or to lean over to if that is comfortable for you
  • Hypnobirthing techniques or breathing exercises similar to those learnt in yoga classes can be extremely helpful during this time
  • Put on your hypnobirthing music or music you find relaxing and calming
  • Try to do some activities to distract you such as walking, baking or meeting up with family and friends
  • Make sure you rest. Even if this just means trying to nod off during longer gaps between irregular contractions
  • Keep well hydrated and nibble on snacks frequently. Your body is working hard towards active labour and needs fuelling well to do this.”

“The best advice during labour, including prodromal labour, is to try to switch off your thinking brain,” she adds.

“Don’t think into to the future, don’t over-think your current situation, trust your body to do the work and just take one hour at a time.”

What to do if you think you’re having prodromal labour contractions

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You should always call your midwife if you are unsure or concerned about your contractions or your baby’s movement, Clare advises.

“Call your midwife or labour ward for advice. If your waters break, you have bleeding, there is reduced fetal movement, you are feeling unwell or are otherwise concerned, call the hospital and make your way in.”  

Lesley agrees 100%, and reckons talking to your midwife is important – especially if you’re feeling unsure or concerned.

“Always remember that if you’re not coping or feeling overwhelmed, it’s much better to call your midwife and discuss how you are feeling. You will feel much better after a reassuring chat.”

How will I know when I’m in active labour?

So, you’re pretty sure in the latent phase, and you’re getting through it. We’re all rooting for you here at MFM – you’re doing great!

At some point, though, you will have dilated enough to be considered in active labour (4cm+) and be in a position to give birth.

So, how do you know when that time has come – if you’re at home and no one’s around to measure your cervix?

Read our guide to the 3 stages of labour, and ask yourself these questions, and if the answers are all ‘yes’, it’s likely you’re still in the latent phase.

  • Do a couple of paracetamol or a hot bath ease my discomfort/distractions?
  • Are my contractions or back pain still stopping and starting, rather than becoming regular, getting closer together and more and more intense?
  • Can I still talk or think straight during the pains and contractions?
  • Is the contraction pain eased by changing the position I’m sitting in?
  • Am I still wondering, “Am I really in labour?” (You won’t need to wonder when you are, suggests Anne, as you’ll surely know about it!)

Any concerns, as always, make sure you get on the phone to your midwife ASAP. If you think you are in active labour, make your way to the labour ward, or follow the advice of your medical professional.

It’s time to have your baby 😊

Our MFM mums’ experiences

You know when you feel like you’ve been in labour for at least, like, a week? That’s actually the latent phase at play – as Nicola R discovered when giving birth to her daughter Jessica.

“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.

“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 6 hours later.”

Anna C found herself thinking she was in labour, too, and was turned away from her labour ward a fair few times…

“During my first pregnancy I went to the labour ward 4 times before I was allowed to stay,” she admits.

“I felt so embarrassed being sent home. 2nd 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 3 hours later.”

Have your say

Did you experience the latent phase before giving birth? Please share your story with us in the comments below – for your chance to be featured in this article!

Lesley Gilchrist is a registered, practising midwife as well as joint brand founder of My Expert Midwife, a pre-and-postnatal product range which tackles taboos for new and expectant mums

Images: Getty Images

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