The Latent Phase of Labour
The latent phase of labour, although a normal part of the birthing process, can be a difficult time for pregnant women. First time mums in particular often believe this is “it”. It isn’t, and active labour may be many hours away. Recognising and understanding the latent phase is important. A combination of excitement and/or discomfort can disrupt sleep, nutrition and hydration, causing anxiety and exhaustion before the active phase even begins.
How do I know it’s the latent phase?
It begins with “tightenings”, often mild and erratic, lasting 20-30 seconds, maybe longer, with little regularity or rhythm. For example, they may be felt every 2 minutes for half an hour then a gap of 6 or 7 minutes, spacing to 10 minutes apart and then back to 2 minutes.
It will cause discomfort in the low abdominal area, sometimes described as a strong period like pain but mild enough to speak through the tightening. Occasionally backache accompanies the tightening.
Frequency can be affected by position or activity, often slowing when sitting and increasing when walking. These mild, irregular tightenings, unlike contractions, have little effect on the cervix. Some softening may occur but they rarely significantly open the cervix beyond 3 or 4 cms.
How do I know when the active phase is starting?
After several hours, the tightenings increase in strength and intensity, becoming more regular, perhaps 3 every 10 mins and last a minute. It will become difficult to speak or move through tightenings as they demand focussed breathing through the 50-60 seconds of discomfort. Each contraction will be similar to the last and discomfort will be felt higher in the womb.
Latent phase do’s and don’ts
Sleep and Relax
If tightenings start at night, try to carry on resting. If sleep is difficult, get as comfortable as possible, a pillow between the knees can help, practice breathing exercises, resting and drifting between tightenings. Breathing deeply focuses the mind and calms as well as providing a good oxygen supply to you and your baby.
Use a hot water bottle on the belly for comfort. Lavender oil on a tissue or in a diffuser can help reduce anxiety and fear. (Lavender is safe to use if you have no medical conditions. It’s always best to check with an aromatherapist or your midwife in case there are any medical reasons why you shouldn’t use essential oils). A warm bath is always helpful - day or night!
For anyone who’s learned hypnobirthing techniques - this is a good time to start using them - anyone who hasn’t - listening to soothing music or meditation can be helpful.
If you have a TENS machine or have been taught rebozo techniques this is the time to use them.
If your birth partner is sleeping let him or her in peace until you really need them. Remember, they may have to drive so it’s best they don’t become too tired.
Eat, Drink and be Merry
If labour begins in the daytime, try to get on with normal life. Eat normally if you can or at least have some snacks. Drink plenty of fluid and remember to empty your bladder frequently.
Good food and drink for the latent phase:
- Porridge or cereal
- Oat bars like
- Wholemeal toast and honey
- Seeds and dried fruit
- Bananas (or any favourite fruit)
- Sweets like jelly babies
Above all, don’t hesitate to eat what you fancy - if you want fish and chips then have them!
Staying active improves the chances of getting baby into a good position for birth. You don't have to do special exercises. If you enjoy baking bake a cake - it’s a helpful distraction and you have a cake at the end of it!
Tidy up, make the bed, sweep the kitchen, hang out the washing, go for a walk. Dance! Use a birthing ball to rotate the hips - and if the action makes you sleepy take a nap!
Help yourself to a dose of oxytocin
Oxytocin is a hormonal big player in the birthing process. It’s one of the hormones that ‘drives’ labour. It’s also known as the love hormone and it’s levels rise with cuddles and hugs - even playing with your dog can help increase oxytocin.
Watching a funny film or listening to a comedy podcast or radio show is also helpful as a distraction and enhances the production of endorphin, a natural painkiller that also reduces anxiety. You can get a sense of how they work by watching this video of a baby laughing, How did you feel before and after listening to this baby chuckle?
How Long does the latent phase last?
6 to 12 hours is an average - it tends to be longer with first time mums and shorter or even not experienced at all after the first baby. Length can also depend on how anxious you are and the baby’s position.
If the latent phase last longer than 12 hours, or if you have any other concerns talk to your midwife.
Techniques like optimal fetal positioning can help move baby into a better position for birth
How do I know when active labour is established?
Contractions in the active phase of labour are unaffected by position or movement, speaking through them is difficult and attention is on breathing. They will last for a minute and come regularly - discomfort moves higher up the womb.