The latent phase tends to be long in the first pregnancy. Some women find the pain in this phase so mild that they can hardly believe that actual labour is imminent. Others are so distressed by the pain in this phase that hospital admission and repeated pain relief with strong painkillers is necessary.
The latent phase tends to blend imperceptibly into the first stage of labour and one should not expect to experience anything specific to signify the true onset of labour. Occasionally, professionals are also caught out. This may happen when a woman with very mild pains in the latent phase is admitted. A midwife may continue to believe that labour has yet to establish, only to be confronted by an imminent delivery a few hours later. This, fortunately, is uncommon.
The uterus is contracting irregularly and the various chemicals necessary for labour are being produced. Some of these are acting upon the cervix, causing it to soften, thin out and become more pliable. It then starts to open. For purely descriptive purposes, it is said that once the cervix has dilated beyond 3 cm, true labour is established and the latent phase has passed.
What are the stages of labour?
There are three main stages of labour.
Stage one starts at the end of the latent phase to the time the cervix is fully dilated (open).
Stage two starts at full cervical dilatation to the time the baby is delivered.
Stage three is from the time the baby is born to the delivery of the placenta (afterbirth).
This is the longest part of labour and the one most women remember vividly. It is the time when contractions get stronger and stronger in an endeavour to build up sufficient expulsive force to get the baby out.
The cervix is also continually dilating, to enable the baby to pass through to the outside world. All this time, she is experiencing such excruciating pain that she wonders again and again how she could be so crazy as to let herself in for this. That is unless she has effective pain relief such as an epidural - in which case she is likely to be blissfully oblivious of the titanic struggle in her pelvis.
The whole process will last between six and ten hours. It could be much shorter sometimes barely an hour. That is for the lucky few.
Nobody knows for sure why there are such big differences in labour duration among individuals. Labour is usually longer in the first pregnancy and, in most cases, shorter in subsequent pregnancies.
A study of what NOT to say to a woman in labour