What Does Dilated Mean?
Dilation refers to the opening of your uterus expanding to make room for your baby to leave your womb. Your cervix, or the narrow passageway from your uterus to your vagina, expands when your body is ready for labor, allowing your baby to be born. Dilation and effacement go hand in hand. Dilation refers to expansion while effacement refers to thinning of the cervix. Both dilation and effacement need to happen before your little one can be born.
Most women will not be aware they are dilating and will need to be examined by a nurse, doctor, or midwife to know if they are dilating. Medical jargon uses centimeters to determine how dilated the cervix is on a scale of 0 to 10 cm. Medical professionals will insert their fingers into the cervix to determine how many centimeters of dilation have occurred. The results may vary as finger size varies between different people. If your doctor cannot insert one finger than dilation has not begun.
When the baby drops (also called lightening and engagement), the baby’s head puts pressure on the cervix which can cause the cervix to expand. When contractions start, pressure is applied to the baby and to the cervix, increasing dilation for the final pushes. Cervical dilation is an involuntary function performed automatically by the body and cannot be manipulated into happening sooner.
0 Centimeters – your cervix is closed, and your mucous plug is still intact.Your uterus will stay closed for most of your pregnancy until early labor starts.
1 Centimeter – your cervix is open about the width of a blueberry. At one centimeter you are now beginning the early stage of labor (also called latent labor). This stage can take weeks or minutes depending on the woman. Now would be a good time to make sure your hospital bag is packed and ready to go.
2 Centimeters – your cervix is open about the width of a grape. The latent labor stage is the usually the longest stage of labor and delivery. Similar to being dilated to one centimeter, you can be dilated to two centimeters for weeks or minutes.
3 Centimeters – your cervix is open about the width of a strawberry. You may start to feel contraction at this stage of dilation, but they will not be very painful. This is the last stage of early labor.
4 Centimeters – your cervix is open about the width of a banana slice. If you are dilated to four, you are extremely close to the next stage of labor if you have no reached this stage already. Active labor comes with consistent contractions. Your contractions will get closer together now and stronger.
5 Centimeters – your cervix is open about the width of a kiwi. If you are dilated to five and having contractions then congratulations you are in active labor! This stage could still take a while; you still have five centimeters to go!
6 Centimeters – your cervix is open about the width of a lemon. Contractions should be consistent and intense by the time you are dilated to six centimeters. Active labor usually last 3-5 hours but varies for every woman. This is the stage where you should leave for the hospital.
7 Centimeters – your cervix is open about the width of a pear. This is the last dilation in active labor before transitional labor begins. Contractions should continue to be stronger and longer. Don’t forget to breathe!
8 Centimeters – your cervix is open about the width of an apple. You are now in transitional labor. Your contractions should be much closer and lasting longer. These contractions are working hard to finish opening and thinning your cervix for your baby’s arrival.
9 Centimeters – your cervix is open about the width of an orange. One more centimeter to go, you are almost there! Thankfully, the intense contractions from centimeters 7-9 are the shortest and usually the contractions at this stage are very effective at preparing the way for the pushing stage of labor.
10 Centimeters – your cervix is open about the width of a cantaloupe. You are ready to push your baby out! Finally, you are dilated fully to allow for your baby’s head to exit your uterus. The transitional labor stage usually takes 15 minutes to 3 hours, but can be longer or shorter depending on the woman. Once you are dilated to ten and are fully effaced (your cervix is completely thinned out), you are ready to push. At ten centimeters you will be moved to the delivery room for the final stage of labor. After delivering the baby, you will have a few more contractions to deliver the placenta before your cervix and uterus start to shrink back down to their original size.