Latent Labor: The Labor Phase You’ve Never Heard Of

expectant couple ipad learning about latent labor

Latent Labor: The first stage of labor is divided into two phases: the latent phase and the active phase. In the latent phase, contractions become progressively more coordinated and the cervix dilates to 4 cm (approximately 1.5 inches)

Sounds straightforward enough, right? Or perhaps, you’re sitting there thinking to yourself, “Latent labor? What the heck?”

The truth is, latent labor is not a term thrown around very often. Many of us are familiar with ‘stages’ of labor (as in 1st stage, 2nd stage, 3rd stage), or even the phrase ‘active labor’. What isn’t explored often enough is what exactly is happening in the body between going about your daily life during pregnancy, and that elusive moment contractions become a predictable, measurable pattern.

As doulas, one thing many of us at Doulas of Baltimore have seen happen time and again is clients feeling confused about this ambiguous period of time and then heading to the hospital very early simply because they aren’t sure. While we all encourage families to head to the hospital whenever they feel ready (and whenever their care providers have advised them to do so), knowing how to manage latent labor before going in can help avoid long triage wait times and lots of hospital hallway walking.

Uncoordinated Uterus – What?!

No one wants to think of their uterus in terms of being uncoordinated, but scientifically speaking, latent labor (also commonly referred to as early labor) is the phase when your body is adjusting and developing its own, unique labor pattern. Your uterus is finding its ‘sea legs’. It’s developing a pattern. Many books and providers advise women to head to the hospital when their contractions or surges have reached a predictable pattern of approximately 5-1-1; contractions spaced 5 minutes apart, lasting at least 1 minute, for at least 1 hour. What isn’t usually mentioned is that it can take a long time for your body to go from no contractions at all to 5-1-1, especially if this is your first baby.

What we know about giving birth in hospitals currently in the United States is that women who go in very early in their labor typically have more interventions and are at a slightly increased risk of complications. Obstetrical best practices now advise that the active stage of labor is defined as beginning when both regular contractions are occurring and at least 6cm of cervical dilation has been achieved. For most low-risk women, the closer to active labor one is when arriving to the hospital, the higher her likelihood of avoiding unnecessary or unwanted interventions during labor. Since most of us aren’t checking our own cervixes at home during labor, learning other ways to gauge when you’ve moved from latent (early) labor to active labor is key!

How will I know??

While these are some things to keep an eye out for, you may not experience all of them in a single labor. A good rule of thumb is that if you’re experiencing 2-3 or more of these signs, labor is probably beginning to progress.

  • Early contractions. These may simply be a tightening sensation (similar to braxton-hicks) or they may be more uncomfortable, heading toward the feeling of menstrual cramps. A main way to discern contractions from braxton-hicks is that they do not go away when you’ve changed your position, hydrated, eaten, used the bathroom, showered, etc.
  • Irregularly spaced contractions. During latent labor, your body is finding its rhythm. This means that contractions may be unpredictable and frustrating to track. You may have one contraction, then another 15 minutes later, then 4 minutes later, then another 12 minutes later. You may describe them as being unable to discern as when one contraction starts and another ends, because everything feels tense and uncomfortable.
  • Frequent bathroom trips/stomach upset. While you may be no stranger to increased bathroom breaks during pregnancy, a common sign of latent labor in having to constantly empty your bladder (due to the increased pressure from baby moving lower in your pelvis and from contractions) and experiencing what might seem like an acute case of gastric distress.
  • Persistent lower back pain. Many women experience intense, persistent lower back pain during latent labor. Since one of the key features of latent labor is your baby rotating and beginning to drop lower into your pelvis, many women experience back pain due to baby’s increased pressure on their sacrum. Some women even report not feeling their contractions in their abdomen, but having the tightening sensations all centered in their lower back.
  • Nesting or ‘shrinking the bubble’. During latent labor, some may find an intense desire to suddenly get everything done that’s been sitting on your to-do list for weeks. You may also experience an unexplainable desire to be close to home (thereby shrinking the bubble of your life!) and have your partner or support team nearby. You may not need them for physical support just yet, but you may feel the internal nudge to ‘get your affairs in order’ before baby makes their entrance.

What should I do??

Now that you know you’re probably in latent labor, what should you do to help tick by the time before you head to the hospital? Again, not all of these items will be necessary for every birthing person, but it’s a good general list to think about.

  • Let your partner/support person know. They don’t need to rush right over at this point usually, but it’s a great idea to give them a heads up just in case things start to progress quickly!
  • Call your doula. YES, we want to know! You might not need us to join you at that moment (almost no one likes to just be stared at during latent labor), but we can help give you even more ideas to pass the time, talk through things you’re experiencing, and be at the ready to join you when things kick up a notch and you give the go-ahead.
  • Double-check you’ve packed what you need. This is a great time to go through your hospital bag one more time, charge your phones, stick your favorite blanket in your in your car, etc.
  • Eat and drink. Many hospitals still limit the intake of food and liquids once you are admitted to labor and delivery. Take advantage of this time to stay hydrated and eat well, even if it’s not super appealing. You’ll need the energy later, I promise!
  • Rest. If at all possible, rest. Even if that means a 9 minute nap in between 10 minute apart contractions. This is not the time to go walk the mall to get things ‘moving’. Your body is doing valuable work all on its own!
  • Make some love-me’s. I love encouraging clients to put together some goodies for their hospital team during labor! Not only does it help keep your mind and hands busy, bringing in some sweet treats for the nursing staff can set a really positive tone when you meet your hospital team for the first time.
  • Stop staring at the clock. Yes, it’s super tempting to time every.single.contraction. It feels like somehow you have more control that way. Latent labor can go on for hours, so put away that contraction timer and just be for a while. I promise you won’t miss your own labor!
  • Do something you love. Watch a great funny movie, check out the library, go be in nature. If it’s day time and you’re struggling with sleep, keep your oxytocin high by enjoying your time! Don’t sit on your couch waiting and wondering- these are the hours to laugh and smile before you really have to dig in and focus.
  • Casually keep an eye out for signs to call your provider about. While you don’t need to be staring at the clock, I do encourage you to really tune into your body during this time. Fluid leaking, severe headache, swelling, lack of movement from baby, visual disturbances, or any struggles with your own respiration or heart rate warrant an immediate call to your provider, no questions asked. Even an unexplainable ‘gut feeling’- your own intuition is a powerful tool worth listening to.
  • Lastly – we strongly advise that you consider NOT announcing to the world you’re in labor just yet. We live in an increasingly digital world, but birth is not a spectator sport. You know what can really undermine your confidence and positive birth experience from the get-go? 500 Facebook friends calling, texting, messaging, and knocking on your door because you said you were in labor 24 hours ago and WHERE IS THAT DANG NEWBORN PICTURE??? Maintain a hedge of privacy around your labor and birth experience and keep everyone on a need-to-know basis.

Wait – how long?!

Latent labor in first-time moms can extend over a full day, night, and sometimes even off-and-on for a few days. It’s easy to become discouraged when you’ve been timing contractions for 12 hours and you arrive to the hospital to hear you’re ‘only’ 2cm dilated. Staying home in familiar surroundings where you have the things (and people) you love is one of the best things you can do to help your labor progress.

Remember, you’ve got this! And we can help…

If you’re looking for childbirth education classes in Baltimore, remember that not all classes are created equally! Learn more detailed, practical information like this about latent labor and everything you need to feel ready to have your baby in either our Complete Childbirth or Birth Basics classes. Find out more about all of our classes including dates and times, by clicking to our Classes page.