What is latent labor, how long does it last and is there anything you can do to speed it up?
How do I know all of this? Hi, I’m Hilary — The Pregnancy Nurse. I’ve been a nurse since 1997 and I have 20 years of labor and delivery experience. After seeing thousands and thousands of moms in early labor (plus being in labor three times on my own) — I can really speak to what it is and what you’ll experience.
If you’re reading this post, it’s likely that you aren’t sure QUITE what to expect in early labor, and I’ve got you! It’s literally what I DO!!!!!
What is Latent Labor?
Latent Labor begins once your cervix starts to open and lasts until you are in “active” labor.
What does Latent Labor Feel Like?
Latent labor can often feel just like the aches and pains of pregnancy, at least early on.
After that, it starts to feel like period cramps. Often low back pain or lower abdomen cramping.
Pro Tip: At any point in this time, it can be considered “false labor” and go away (some people call those Braxton Hicks contractions)… confusing, right? I have a whole Am I In Labor Quiz on my sister site Pulling Curls.
It can then progress to involve your entire abdomen and possibly your back being in pain. At this point, it is more likely you are in “true labor“.
I find it to be similar to painful stomach cramps with the flu or food poisoning — but it is also different (and has the anxiety of “labor” behind it).
And if you’re wondering WHAT THE HECK you got yourself into… do yourself a favor and join me in here. In just a few minutes I can get you prepared on what to watch for, and what you can do in early labor to keep things going (plus, when to know when you should call or go into the hospital).
How long does latent labor last?
The duration of latent labor varies. It mostly depends on when your body decides to make harder, more-frequent contractions. Some people find it longer on their first baby (but not always).
Many people don’t notice early latent labor — it can feel similar to the regular aches and pains of pregnancy.
I just did a podcast episode on how long labor is:
What is prolonged latent labor?
It just means early contractions that last a long time.
Often people will contact for a full day even up to days before they go into active labor.
I know we all view labor as something that just “happens” and you know you’re in labor. But often labor feels like just feeling crappy, and it slowly progresses into something more that you can’t deny is labor.
The “onset of labor” is REALLY hard to calculate (even for professionals) as it really is a “spectrum” of labor. And we really just know it once you’re there.
And yes, I go into ALL Of this in DEPTH right here (including the formula to get you to the hospital right on time).
Why would someone’s latent labor be prolonged?
Most likely it’s based on the frequency and how hard your contractions are (and yes, I talk all about both of those in here and how to count them).
Dehydration can cause something that looks similar to latent labor (but isn’t even labor because dehydration contractions don’t open your cervix).
What will this phase be like if I am induced?
First off, you will be in the delivery unit from the start, so it will be harder to move around and feel the comforts of home. However, due to the medications, it is likely this phase’s timing will be reduced than if you were home. You may feel a lot of similar things (see the next section) during your induction as well though.
Be sure to check out my post on a Cytotec induction, it will explain more.
Feeling Like Crap Before Labor?
Most people just don’t feel well as they head into labor. Although, they likely haven’t felt well for a few days. In retrospect though, people do realize that the day they actually went into labor they really did feel their very worst, and that just progressed into labor.
However, as a mom to three, I will say that I kept thinking that I felt pretty bad, and this was likely labor…. but it wasn’t. Each day just sort of got worse (and it’s impossible to measure).
Why does feeling like crap put you into labor?
It is likely just your body preparing for labor. You may experience things like:
- Backache — small contractions that are helping to soften your cervix can feel like lower back pain
- Period pains — which extend into extreme period pains (these are contractions)
- Pelvic pain as the baby descends into your pelvis
- Stomach upset due to your GI system cleaning out for baby
- Achiness all over as the hormone Relaxin helps your muscles and joints prepare for labor
- Generalized Malaise as your body conserves energy to push out the baby
All of that is SUPER normal (and annoying)… It’s really hard to pinpoint the “beginning of labor” as each woman experiences it differently, and will likely pinpoint it on their own after the baby is born.
Pro Tip: If you plan on possibly having other children, I would write down your birth story as soon as possible so you can remember the details and possibly help yourself next time!
What can my birth partner do to help?
If partners have no idea what to expect, this part can seem very scary. It may be long, and you (the person they love) can be so uncomfortable.
First off, they need to understand that this can last a while, and that’s OK. That isn’t something to be afraid of.
Secondly, there is a LOT they can do to help you. And yes, I do talk about this a LOT in here, but here are 3 tips for them right now:
- Encourage you to move — if you’re not sleeping you should be trying different positions every 30 minutes or so.
- Do things that feel good for the laboring person. Massage, rubbing your feet or scalp. Whatever feels good.
- Relax before the next contraction — you will have breaks between contractions and it is important that you relax during these to help the baby descend.
And yes, this class is available RIGHT NOW, it’s entirely on demand, and I can help walk you through this — even if you’re doing it right now! Let me give you more tips like what they can do to feed/hydrate you, labor positions, and some easy massage ideas that feel great!
How do I know latent labor has ended?
Most often your contractions will be every 2-5 minutes (depending on what # baby you are on) for about an hour, and painful enough that you can’t talk through them.
This means regular contractions truly should be every 2-5 minutes without long breaks. Just because you have a couple of contractions close doesn’t mean as much as ones that continue for an hour every 5 minutes.
However, it’s mostly when it’s just more and more painful and your cervix is 4-6 centimeters.
It CAN end when your amniotic sac breaks. At that point, you know you are in labor and should probably call your health care provider to know what you should do next. That being said amniotic fluid can be confusing, and I have a whole post on how to know if your water broke on my sister site.
Most often (although not always) this means you’ve entered the active phase of labor (and left the latent phase of labor). The significant difference is truly that your cervix is opening at a more rapid rate and labor is progressing (and the baby is heading into the birth canal).
How do I know when to to go the hospital?
I have a whole formula that I recommend in my Online Prenatal Class so that couples have a pretty good idea of when to go.
That being said, I would talk with your provider about when YOU should head to the hospital. That timeframe can vary for several reasons:
- Any previous surgeries
- Placental issues
- GBS (group beta strep) status
- Traffic in your area
- Your timeframe away from the hospital
- Your plans for pain relief
What are the other phases of labor?
There are four phases of labor. These are also called stages of labor, but it should be noted that they (especially the first two) really aren’t definite in their timing and is really just noted in retrospect, rather than as it is happening to pregnant women.
Phase 1: Latent (or early) labor >> which we’ve been talking about.
Phase 2: Active Labor >> This starts when your cervix is about 4-6 centimeters (doctors argue on that one — I define it more that your cervix is actively opening). This second stage of labor is normally when you want to head into the hospital, and are having very painful contractions.
Phase 3: Pushing to delivery of the baby >> I have a whole post on the pushing phase of labor (this is also known as the third stage of labor). In general, this starts once you have complete cervical dilation and are feeling the urge to push.
Phase 4: Delivery of the placenta
Some people believe there is a 5th phase of labor as your uterus contracts back down, but that isn’t “official”.
In general, latent labor is the most confusing stage of labor. The “start” of it varies (as labor may often come and go as you head into your due date), and since even medical professionals can’t agree on when it “ends” — that makes it confusing.
I hope this helped you realize that labor, in the beginning, can be long and confusing. Be sure to take a class to get prepared on what to expect throughout the labor process! Use code PREGNURSE so save 10%
And, if you’re not quite sure you’re ready for that whole thing, check out the free lesson from it. It’s your first step toward getting in the driver’s seat of your birth.
- About the Author
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A nurse since 1997, she has worked in various fields including pediatrics, geriatrics & hospice. She has 20 years of labor and delivery experience in the San Jose, CA and Phoenix, AZ areas.
As an evidence-based prenatal educator Hilary has delivered thousands of babies and has educated hundreds of thousands of parents from a diverse patient population to help them have a confident birth.