You may know that latent talent is defined as hidden talent. Well, the latent phase of labor has a bit of that same hidden element — it’s the very start of labor, when things get moving but can still be pretty unclear.

During the latent (or “early”) phase of labor, you’ll start to feel contractions as muscles in the walls of the uterus get to work. These contractions put pressure on your cervix and help it to slowly open, or in your OB’s language, dilate.

The contractions also help the cervix to soften, shorten, and thin out. OBs call this effacement. You may still have a ways to go, but dilation and effacement make for a good start.

Wondering how you’ll know that the latent phase has started? You’re not alone by a long shot. This is probably the number one question for expectant moms when it comes to labor in general.

Some lucky women may find that the barely noticeable twinges that they’ve been feeling over the last couple of weeks have actually worked some magic and helped to dilate and efface the cervix.

Other women may only realize that the cervix has changed once they feel mild to moderate contractions that last 30 to 45 seconds or less.

These contractions could be regularly spaced at about 20-minute intervals.

They could also be irregularly spaced.

They could get progressively closer.

Or they could stop altogether.

Scenarios abound — enough to make your head spin! (Or give you the urge to reach for chocolate.)

So what’s actually happening? Think of your cervix as a 3 to 4 centimeter (cm)-long muscle that connects your vagina with your uterus. Your cervix is normally firmly closed, but it opens a tiny bit every month to let through your menstrual flow.

When you’re pregnant, a tightly shut cervix prevents infection from entering your uterus and keeps your baby safely in place. That is, until your contractions begin.

While you’re busy wondering if this is what contractions feel like, your cervix is changing shape and an opening starts to appear. When your midwife tells you that you’re 3 to 4 cm dilated, they’re telling you that your opening is about the size of an Oreo cookie.

Here’s what you might (or might not) notice in the latent phase:

  • pain similar to the cramping felt when you have a period
  • back and thigh pain
  • the need to run to the bathroom for a bowel movement
  • a clear or blood-streaked discharge (say goodbye to the mucus plug that blocked your cervical opening over the last 9 months)
  • rupturing of your membranes — but note that only 8 to 10 percent of women find that their water breaks before they enter the active stage of labor

Another common question: “Now the latent phase has started, how long will it last?” It depends. Some women will feel these “ouch” contractions for days, others for only hours.

Here’s the good news: Usually laboring for your first birth takes the longest (12 to 18 hours). Things speed up with subsequent births (8 to 10 hours). But heads up: There’s no gold standard when it comes to labor, and every birth is a story to itself. Expect the unexpected, and you’re on your way!

You’ve made it through those easy waves of contractions and now it’s getting harder. In fact, it really hurts!

You’re probably feeling excited and apprehensive at the same time. That’s normal when you’re about to bring new life into the world and you don’t know exactly how it’s going to happen.

Keeping calm at this point (yes, it can be done) and taking the right steps to manage the pain will help your labor to progress successfully. Here are some things that can help with the pain and anxiety.

What to do:

  • If you labor starts at night, try to stay in bed and sleep so that you maintain your strength for later.
  • Keep busy. You probably don’t feel like making small talk about the weather, but you may want to indulge your nesting instinct and straighten up the house or cook a meal.
  • Keep moving. Walking will help move your labor along. If you’re looking to help it along even more, slowly walk up and down some steps.
  • Take a warm (not hot) bath or shower to help you relax — especially if you use the luxury shower gel you bought just for these special moments.
  • Stay hydrated. While you may not feel like eating much, do keep drinking fluids. Opt for water, sports drinks, or grape juice.
  • Eat light foods only. Toast, crackers, and fruit are good choices. Don’t feel like eating? That’s fine, too.
  • Breathe. Remember those breathing exercises you learned in antenatal classes? A small 2013 study found that they’re not all wind. So go ahead and put them to use. Ask your birth partner to breathe with you. The laws of entrainment (falling into step) mean that you’ll match your breathing patterns to the soothing rhythm your partner’s breathing without even realizing it.

What to use:

  • Ask your doula or birth partner to apply pressure to the area using tennis balls. They can also massage your lower back.
  • Bounce gently on a birthing ball to help relieve back and abdominal pain.
  • Consider a transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation (TENS) machine, which is a small, electrical device that sends out tiny electrical impulses through pads that you apply to the painful area. The tingling sensation may help block pain signals sent from your body to your brain. A 2012 study showed that TENS machines may help reduce lower back pain during pregnancy.

You’ve been waiting 9 months for these moments. But you’re still unsure whether it’s time to call your doctor. Here’s a list that can help you decide it’s time:

  • You’re feeling anxious. Reaching out for support when you’re anxious will give you the reassurance you need to remain relaxed.
  • You think your membranes have ruptured.
  • You’ve timed your contractions, and they’re finally regular — about 3 times in every 10 minutes.

If you notice any of the three things below, you should also call your doctor ASAP:

  • The amniotic fluid that’s released when your membranes rupture should be clear or much paler than urine. A green-yellow tinge means that your amniotic fluid has been colored by meconium. This needs a doctor’s attention.
  • You’re pretty sure that you can no longer feel your baby moving around. Try to encourage movement by eating or drinking something sweet. If you still don’t feel any movement, make the call.
  • You see significant bleeding. This could signal a problem with the placenta.

Next comes the active stage of labor. You know you’re there when your contractions become more regular, stronger, and last for up to a minute.

You’ll notice that the contractions rise to a peak and then fall. Use the time between the contractions to rest and prepare for the next wave. During this stage, your cervix opens further to about 7 centimeters, the size of a tomato.

While the onset of labor is exciting, you may also be feeling anxious. But take a look around — every single person you can see was born by an amazing woman who likely dealt with the same nerves that you’re going through.

You’re about to join the ranks of the amazing mothers. You’ve got this.