Cervical exam in labor
Can you feel when you’re dilating?! Answer coming in a sec!
While you’re waiting for the arrival of your baby, wondering how dilated you are is completely understandable. You're excited & nervous as you anticipate the arrival of your child. Waiting is hard, & not knowing when or how things will unfold can be especially challenging. The objective data that comes from your cervical exam is easy to hold onto when everything else feels flimsy or out of control. A number might make you feel like you know how long labor will last & ease your mind as you traverse the unknown landscape of childbirth.
A cervical exam gives us some information about what your body is doing, but labor is dynamic and change happens at its own pace! When you rely a number that doesn’t guarantee how long labor will be or when your baby is going to be born, it takes you out of the moment. It’s very easy to get caught up in an unreliable number & forget what the birthing process is about: you becoming a mother & getting to meet your baby for the first time! If the results of your cervical exam distract you, make you feel defeated, or give you a boost of energy, it might mean you’re fixating on the end goal of “being done.” While there is absolutely NOTHING wrong with wanting labor to be over or to "just meet your baby already!", focusing too much on your cervical exam can potentially interfere with your ability to create a meaningful childbirth experience. Your subjective experience of labor matters; you are working hard (regardless of what your cervical exam says!) & striving to stay in tune with your body.
With that being said, knowledge can be empowering, so let’s talk about what happens to your cervix in labor. Your cervix is 2-3 cm thick. It needs to dilate (open) and efface (thin) before your baby can be born. We use a percentage to talk about how effaced your cervix is- 100% means your cervix is totally thinned out. Dilation is how open your cervix is- it ranges from 0 to 10 cm. And no, you can't feel yourself dilating. In order to give birth, the cervix needs to soften, shorten and become thinner. However, even if you’re dilated or effaced, it doesn’t predict when you’ll go into labor. We honestly just don't know what starts it.
If you’e a first-time mom, your cervix is more likely to thin before it dilates, but it doesn’t usually happen until active labor. If you’ve had babies before, you might be dilated but not effaced as you get closer to your due date.
Knowing about the process of dilation is helpful, but the most relevant information you need to know when you’re in labor comes from within, not from an objective number. Let your body do what it’s going to do. The emotional & physical signs of labor are your best indicators that your body is doing the hard work of preparing to meet your babe