Labour & birth Pregnancy Countdown to birth How will I know I'm in labour? What does labour feel like and how will you know when it's started? 1 of Ad break Getting ready to spot the signs of labour and birthRead on to be fully prepared for B-day As your big day approaches you'll no doubt be feeling a mixture of nerves and excitement, especially if you're a first-time mum. How will labour start? What will it feel like? When should you call your midwife or the hospital for help? We talk you through the signs that early labour is starting, plus you can read how it happened for three new mums You have a 'show' A plug of mucus has corked your cervix during your pregnancy, and as your cervix softens and thins, the plug comes free. This 'show' is the most common early sign of labour, although not all women have one. 'It can happen on the day of labour, or a few weeks before,' says midwife Lorna Bird. 'Some women notice a bit of mucus and may not realise it's a show. It may be tinged with old blood. If the blood is bright red or greenish, call the hospital. Otherwise, just make a note of when it occurred and tell your midwife at your next appointment.' My waters broke in Starbucks! Amanda Burney, 40, from London, explains her labour story: 'Two weeks before my due date I went to the loo and saw a 'show' on the toilet paper. It was like heavy discharge, slightly pinkish. I was quite excited, but nothing more happened for a week, which was a bit of an anti-climax. I felt a bit disappointed, and tried to get things moving by eating curries and drinking raspberry leaf tea. Then I started having mild period-type pains, which slowly got stronger. The next day my waters broke - in Starbucks, embarrassingly! We called the hospital and were told to go in.' Your waters break A leak or gush of waters is the first sign of labour for about 15% of women. Amniotic fluid is a pale, straw-coloured liquid and smells sweet. If you're bleeding or the water isn't clear, go straight to hospital. 'If your waters break, call the hospital to let them know. You'll usually need to be examined and have a swab taken to rule out infection,' says Lorna. 'Contractions usually start within 24 to 48 hours.' Continue slideshow > My waters broke at 36 weeks Elisa Green, 29, from Camberley, Surrey, was having a cup of tea at her mum's: 'My waters broke when I was 36 weeks pregnant. I was at my mum's house, sitting on the sofa, drinking tea and eating cake. I started to feel as though I needed to wee, so kept popping to the toilet every five minutes. Next thing I knew, I leapt off the sofa and ran to the bathroom, where my waters went all over the floor. I rang my husband, who was working 60 miles away, and then the hospital and was told to come straight in to be checked. Contractions started about three hours later. Ella was born after 13 hours, weighing a healthy 6lb 9oz. She was obviously ready to come - even if we weren't!' You have contractions These start as period-type pains, building in intensity. Unlike contractions in active labour, early contractions don't have a regular pattern and can go on for days. 'Many women are disappointed to find they're not in established labour, despite having painful contractions,' says Lorna. 'Quite often with a first baby, women will make their way into hospital, thinking they're in labour, but as soon as they get to the ward, the contractions stop. Contractions aren't considered regular until they're every three to five minutes and last longer than a minute. If you think you're in labour, phone your midwife or the hospital for advice, but the longer you can stay at home, the better. The key thing is to try to wait until you've been contracting regularly for a few hours, rather than rush into hospital at the first contraction.' My contractions started coming really quickly Cara Lavocah, 36, from Croydon, sent her husband to the pub: 'The day before my due date I started getting some twinges, like a dull period pain. I assumed it would be hours before I'd go into labour, so I sent my husband to the pub. By 6pm I was rocking on my birth ball and texting him to come back! When contractions were five minutes apart we called the hospital, but the midwife advised me to take paracetamol and have a bath to ease the pain. In the bath I was in agony, so we called again and were allowed to go in. We arrived at 1am to find I was 8cm dilated!' Braxton Hicks Not all contractions are the real thing. Braxton Hicks are 'practice' contractions, which you may feel any time after about 16 weeks. Your bump will tighten and feel rock hard, tensing for up to 30 seconds. The contractions are irregular and, unlike labour contractions,don't increase in frequency or severity. 'You'll usually feel Braxton Hicks in the last few weeks of pregnancy as the womb gets ready for labour,' says Lorna. 'They're not painful, but they'll take your breath away.' Continue slideshow > Every birth is different Because every woman is different, the first signs of labour can vary, as midwife Lorna Bird explains: 'The early stage, where you have a 'show', your waters break or you have contractions, can last a couple of days for a first baby, although it's usually quicker for a second. It can also stop and start, so eat, sleep and rest when you can.' Have a look here for more information on the first signs of labour, and ideas on how to get labour started By Babyexpert.com Last updated on 11 October 2011 Comments Latest on MadeForMums The irony of this teacher's 'healthy lunchbox' note Binky's 8-month bump - and surprising wedding shoe choice This dad's empowering father-son selfie will totally melt your heart Pregnant Chanelle Hayes: 'How do I get rid of these stretch marks?'