First thing first... make sure it's not a case of that ultra inconvenient Braxton Hicks. It's not, it's all systems go. You grab your pre-packed hospital bag, complete with your birth plan, call your doctor, and off you go. You or your husband may have already done a test drive from your home to the hospital countless times, but this time's for real.
After the initial procedures to admit you in, you're rolled into the delivery room. And here's what to expect.
Stage 1 (a): Early labour
There are really three parts to the first stage of labour - early labour, active labour, and transitional.
Early labour is when your cervix starts to dilate. For first time mothers, it may be harder to recognize as it will feel like mild, period-like cramps and may be accompanied by backache.
An easy way to tell the difference between an actual labour contraction and Braxton-Hicks is the regularity of the contraction itself. While Braxton-Hicks contractions occur irregularly, labour contractions should occur, in beginning phases, about five minutes apart and for 30-40 seconds each time. And as time passes, the contractions will become longer, stronger and closer together.
At this point, you may also notice a mucous discharge that may be slightly tinged with blood. This is called a show. It's the plug to your cervix that has come out because your cervix is dilating. The show could also come out hours, even days before your actual labour starts, so it's not a good indicator that you are in labour.
Stage 1 (b)- Active labour
When you reach 4cm dilation, you're entering into the active labour phase. Now you are well and truly on your way to delivering your baby! In the active labour stage, you go from 4cm dilation to 10cm. For some, this is the longest part of the birthing process.
The contractions are a lot stronger now and you may not be able to ignore them. Focus on breathing and relaxing as the contractions increase in intensity. At this point, you may be experiencing contractions every three or four minutes apart and lasting up to 90 seconds each time.
Stage 1 (c)- Transitional labour
This is when you're moving towards the pushing stage, when you are between 8cm to 10cm in dilation or when you feel you're ready to begin pushing. This is also when your water will break.
This is the most intense part of your labour process as contractions are at their strongest and longest lasting.
Stage two of labour is when you're minutes away from the moment you've waited all pregnancy for. You will continue to experience contractions at this time. The contractions aid your baby's journey through the birth canal as you push and experience the pressure of your baby's head.
As the opening of your vagina stretches to accommodate your baby's head, you will feel a hot, stinging sensation. Listen to your body and your doctor, as this is the crucial moment of whether you'll tear, or require an episiotomy.
And then the magical moment comes - this is when your baby's born into the world!
You should already know when you want your baby's umbilical cord to be cut.
Stage three begins after your baby is born. You will continue to experience strong contractions, but this time, you're delivering the placenta. The contractions help detach the placenta from your womb.
You should have already decided while preparing your birth plan if you want to receive an injection to speed up this process. You may experience bleeding inside your womb from where the placenta has detached, but more contractions in your uterus will slow and stop the bleeding naturally.
Breastfeeding also reportedly triggers hormones to speed up detachment of the placenta.
There is a less recognised, fourth stage labour. This is the one hour period after delivery of the placenta. In this one hour, your doctor will proceed with stitching up tears or if he administered an episiotomy. This hour is your recovery period before you're wheeled out of the delivery room back into your ward where you'll stay during the rest of your time in the hospital.
Most new mums use this time to take a short nap while your baby is being cleaned, before breastfeeding.
Experts advise for mums keen on breastfeeding to start doing so with a direct latch to your nipples within the first hour of your baby's birth. This triggers your hormones into providing supply and reduces risk of undersupply or difficulty in breastfeeding later on.