The first stage of labour includes the time from the start of labour (although defining that is a challenge in itself!) to full dilation of the cervix i.e. when you start pushing. It is usually the longest stage and builds in intensity from the latent phase, through the active phase, ending with the transition phase.
Until now the cervix has been tightly closed with a mucus plug. In the weeks and days before you start to feel that labour has started, the cervix starts to get thinner (this is called effacing) and you may lose your mucus plug - this is referred to as having a 'show'.
... it is difficult to accurately say when labour actually started...
The latent phase of labour may feel very similar to contractions or sensations you have experienced in the weeks and days before labour, which is why it is difficult to accurately say when labour actually started, and hence how long a woman's labour actually is. For example, I had mild period pain type cramps and backache for three days before I would say that labour actually started, whereas someone else may experience those cramps as contractions and describe themselves as having been in labour for three days.
So in summary, the first stage of labour includes:
A tip from our Birth Partner's Guide: You'll know she's in transition when she...