At the start of labour, the neck of your womb which has been long and hard during pregnancy will start softening, to allow it to shorten and open up in preparation for your baby's birth.
• the 'show'
The mucus plug sealing the neck of your womb (cervix) during pregnancy comes away as the cervix starts to open. It looks like clear jelly, or slightly blood-stained and pinkish. Once you've had a show, all you can do is wait. Labour proper might start in anything from a few hours to a few days.
First contractions are usually mild and infrequent, although regular - perhaps one every 20 minutes.
• the waters breaking (For information on this see 'When to call the midwife or go to hospital'.)
In the first stage of labour your contractions are pushing your baby's head (or bottom, if he is in the breech position) firmly down onto the cervix. The pressure of the baby's head causes the cervix to open or dilate to 10 cms.
As the cervix opens, your baby's head starts to move deep into the pelvis. The contractions will become longer - lasting 40-60 seconds. They become stronger, and closer together, at 7, 6, or 5 minute intervals. You feel the pains mainly in your back, low down, and across your hips, and perhaps in your thighs. You may lose track of time - with hours flying by without your noticing or a minute-long contraction seeming to last forever.
You will probably want to groan and shout. Don't hold back - making a noise is an excellent way of coping with pain! You may want someone to tell you how much longer labour will last, but no one can honestly say. Your baby will be born when he is ready.