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Early labour

Within this information, we may use the terms "woman" and "women". However, we recognise that not only people who identify as women may want to access this content. Your care should be personalised, inclusive and sensitive to your needs, whatever your gender identity.

This information is for mothers to be who are between 37 and 42 weeks' pregnant, with a low-risk pregnancy. If you are less than 37 weeks' pregnant, please contact your maternity unit if you think your labour may have started or if you are worried about something.

Maternity Assessment Centre, Good Hope Hospital

Pregnancy Assessment Emergency Room, Heartlands Hospital

What is early labour?

The early part of labour is called the latent phase of labour and can last a long time.

During this time, your cervix becomes soft and thin as it is getting ready to open up (dilate), enabling your baby to be born.

  • When this happens, you will start having tightenings and/or back pain (tightenings are pains in your abdomen (tummy) where pain comes and goes)
  • These may be irregular, and might vary in strength, frequency and how long they last
  • The tightenings may start and then slow down, have episodes of stop-starting or stop completely. Don’t worry - this is normal. They are called "Braxton Hicks"

When you have a contraction, your womb tightens and then relaxes. Some women report this feeling like period-type pains. Some women experience pain in their back and tops of their thighs, as well as or instead of pain in the abdomen.

Please be aware that your abdomen should never be constantly hard and tight; it must relax and go soft between these contractions. If it doesn’t, please attend the hospital immediately.

What is a show?

During your pregnancy, your cervix (the opening between the vagina and the womb) is closed and plugged with mucus. This keeps out infection. However, when your labour starts the mucus plug may come out. This is called a show and you may notice it in your underwear or when you go to the toilet. Please don’t worry. Not all women have a show.

A show is a thick, sticky, jelly-like mucus and may come out in one go or several pieces. It's normal to lose a small amount of blood in the mucus. However you must contact your midwife if you are worried or you are losing more blood. Bleeding at this stage of labour may be a sign that something is wrong.

Please call your midwife or assessment unit for advice if your mucus plug comes out before you’re 37 weeks' pregnant.

How long does early labour (the latent phase of labour) last?

Every woman’s labour is different, so it's very difficult to say how long the latent phase will last. It can be hours or, for some women, days.

Should I contact the midwife or assessment unit?

Yes, you should contact the midwife for advice.

Your midwife may do the following, and you will probably be offered an early assessment:

  • Ask how you feel, and whether you have any tightness or bleeding, or if you are having any vaginal loss, such as waters
  • Ask you about your birth plans, and whether you're booked in for an induction or elective Caesarean section
  • Ask you about your baby’s movements, especially if there are any changes. It's important to understand that your baby should move normally, including when you are going into and being in labour
  • Offer you support and pain relief if needed, such as a warm bath or paracetamol
  • Tell you who to contact next, and when
  • Give advice and support to your birth partner if you have one, if you are too uncomfortable

If all is going well, your midwife will recommend that you stay at home until you are in established labour. Established labour is when you are having four contractions, lasting approximately one minute each, in a 10-minute period. (These must be regular and consistent.)

You may come into hospital at any time to get checked, or if you are not coping. However, you are more likely to have a smoother labour and fewer interventions if you stay at home until labour is stronger and your contractions are regular.

Please remember to call the pregnancy assessment or maternity assessment units and speak to a midwife for advice if you are concerned. These units are open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year.

Last reviewed: 28 December 2022