What Is Latent Phase Labor?

Woman in labor in hospital bed.

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Pregnant women often wonder whether they'll know when true labor begins. The end of pregnancy is filled with discomforts, including false contractions that mimic labor pains, making it difficult to determine when exactly it's time to call the doctor.

Labor is broken down into three phases: early, active and transitional. Early labor is referred to as the latent phase. This is the least difficult phase of labor but often lasts the longest. Some women are in early labor for several days, while others remain in this phase for only a few hours.

Though every woman experiences latent labor differently, latent labor is invariably the first step in the childbirth process. Knowing the signs of early labor can help you better prepare and understand when to head to the hospital.

What Is Latent Labor?

Latent labor is the first stage of labor and birth. During this phase, you will begin to feel regular contractions. Unlike Braxton Hicks contractions, true labor contractions will continue in a pattern and eventually grow closer together.

Contractions will occur between 5 and 30 minutes apart during early labor, typically lasting between 25 and 30 seconds. Here's how to spot the difference between true and false labor pains:

  • True labor contractions: These are consistent contractions that increase in strength and frequency. True labor contractions begin in the lower back before moving to the front of the abdomen. They will not be alleviated by simply shifting positions.
  • Braxton Hicks contractions: These are irregular contractions and often stop when you walk, rest, or switch positions. Braxton Hicks contractions affect the lower abdominal or pelvic region. They can develop as early as the second trimester but are more common toward the end of pregnancy.

During early labor, your cervix will dilate to three centimeters; it will also begin to thin out, which is referred to as effacement. Contractions help this process along by slowly opening and softening the cervix.

Early labor is unpredictable and is typically longer for first-time moms. Latent labor may last up to 10 to 12 hours in subsequent deliveries.

Identifying Early Labor

The onset of labor is different for everyone. Some women hardly feel early contractions—especially if they've been slowly dilating over the course of several days. For others, contractions can be uncomfortable right from the start.

During early labor, you may experience:

  • Menstrual-like cramps
  • Diarrhea
  • Lower abdominal pressure
  • A warm sensation in the abdomen
  • Back pain (constant or with each contraction)
  • Indigestion

It's also normal to notice blood-tinged discharge, or bloody show, as the mucus that blocks the cervical opening during pregnancy is expelled. Some women will experience a rupturing of the amniotic membranes during latent labor, though your water is more likely to break during the active phase.

What to Do During the Latent Phase

Knowing you're in early labor may bring on feelings of excitement, relief, and even anxiety about the uncertainty that lies ahead. If you're feeling nervous as labor begins, there are ways to help you relax through the process, such as:

  • Taking a shower
  • Going for a walk
  • Reviewing your birth plan
  • Listening to music
  • Talking to your partner
  • Eating a light meal
  • Keeping hydrated
  • Alerting the necessary parties (families, doulas, etc.)

If labor begins in the evening, try to get some sleep. It's important to rest and save your strength if you're able. During the day, you may go about your regular routine. Watching television, organizing baby clothes, or engaging in another activity can help pass the time until labor becomes more active.

Tips for Easing the Pain

Discomfort can be intense for some women during early labor. To alleviate pain, try:

  • Bouncing on an exercise ball
  • Having your birth partner apply pressure to your back using tennis balls
  • Practicing rhythmic breathing
  • Taking a warm bath
  • Applying a warm or cool compress to painful areas

When to Call Your Doctor or Midwife

Even if you don't plan to head to the hospital right away, it's helpful to call your provider to let them know labor has begun.

You will likely be instructed to stay home until your contractions become stronger and closer together. Typically, doctors follow the 5-1-1 rule: that is, your contractions are five minutes apart, lasting for one minute at a time, and have been occurring for at least one hour.

If your water has broken, or you are experiencing bleeding, it's important to relay that information to your provider. The doctor or midwife will ask you about the color of your amniotic fluid, which should be clear. A green-yellow tinge means the fluid has been colored by meconium and requires a doctor's attention.

Bleeding is normal during labor, but significant bleeding (more than two tablespoons) could signify an issue with the placenta. In cases of excess bleeding, your provider will advise you to head to the hospital or birth center to be examined.

Arriving at the Hospital

Once you're at the hospital, or with your midwife at home, you will be examined to determine the dilation of your cervix. Some women are dilated to several centimeters before realizing they're in labor, while others will experience strong contractions while only 1 to 2 centimeters dilated.

Your doctor, nurse, or midwife will also check your cervix to measure effacement. This process allows the baby to move into the birth canal and is measured in percentages. A cervix that is 0% effaced indicates no thinning, 50% means the cervix is half its normal thickness, and 100% is fully thinned.

Your provider will use this information along with the position of the cervix and your baby to determine the next steps. If you're less than 3 centimeters and are not in significant pain, you and your provider may decide you should rest at home until labor picks up. However, if you're in a great deal of pain or your water has broken, chances are you will be admitted.

Once you are dilated beyond 5 or 6 centimeters, most practitioners will advise you to remain at the hospital or birth center until your baby is delivered.

A Word From Verywell

You've been imagining your labor since your pregnancy first began, and it's normal to feel a variety of emotions when the moment arrives. The latent phase of labor can be lengthy, but it's the first step in the direction of finally meeting your baby.

Communicate honestly with your provider during this phase so they can best support you through the process. If you have any questions or concerns, be sure to call your doctor or midwife for advice.

If you haven't already, consider making a list with your birth partner about when you'll call or head to the hospital once labor begins. This will help you feel better prepared for the big day.

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Article Sources
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  3. Cleveland Clinic. Labor and Delivery. Reviewed July 26 2016.