In places where hospital birth is the norm, one of the major contemporary challenges to the organization of intrapartum care is posed by women who are not in established labor. In the United Kingdom, these women have been given a special name, “Category X,” and they can account for a substantial percentage of admissions (1). These women are not deemed to be in need of hospital care, but the women themselves may feel otherwise as they struggle to understand the sensations they are experiencing. Until relatively recently, little research effort was expended on early and latent phase labor, reflecting, perhaps, the assumption that it is just a gentle and relatively straightforward preamble to the “real thing” that can easily be dealt with by keeping mobile, leaning over furniture, or doing the ironing. Because early labor is not seen as needing a health professional's input, the message is that it is unimportant. However, emerging evidence is challenging that view. Four large randomized controlled trials have recently evaluated interventions related to early labor care (2–5), stimulated by concerns that included repeated visits to the labor ward and the impact of early admission with the potential for a cascade of interventions. These trials, and other research reporting women's own perspectives on labor onset, reflect growing awareness that this stage of labor merits consideration in its own right.
An International Early Labor Research Group has formed who will develop the evidence base in this important part of childbearing. The group represents varied disciplines including midwifery, psychology, epidemiology, antenatal education, and service user representatives. Members of this group are among those who have contributed to this Roundtable Discussion. The contributions draw attention to the complexities of early labor and its importance for childbearing women, their caregivers and companions. We might reasonably hypothesize that a woman's experience of early labor sets the scene for what follows, and it is clear that this is an area worthy of considerable further research.
The Roundtable Discussion project and the Preface were prepared by Josephine M. Green and Helen Spiby.