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Signs of Labor: Cervix Effacement and Dilation

Katlyn Joy |12, February 2014


We're all here as a result of childbirth, yet so much of what we know of it comes from the most unreliable of sources; movies, TV, urban myth. It's not unlike learning about sex from other fourth-graders at school.

Take the mysterious cervix, for instance. If photos of organs and body parts were put in a line up, how likely is it you could correctly identify one? We know it's at the back of the vagina, that little bump that feels somewhat like a nose, and that it's the border between the vagina and the uterus.

It becomes a barometer in late pregnancy to gauge just how close we may be getting to going into labor. The doctor begins checking it regularly. Words like effacement, thinning, dilating and centimeters get thrown about. We nod and pretend to get it; but do we?

Here's the lowdown on your cervix, what it is, what it does during pregnancy and labor and what you should know about it.

Technically the cervix is a part of the uterus, and is cartilage about an inch wide. On top of the cartilage is soft tissue that is moist. The cervix is changeable, and is different depending on what part of the menstrual cycle we are in, whether we are ovulating, in early or late pregnancy, or in beginning or late stages of childbirth.

During our periods, our cervix will be harder, lower in position and one of the two times it will be open, although only slightly.

When nearing ovulation, the cervix softens and rises to a higher position. It is also will be wetter then. Once ovulating, your cervix will feel like your lips and seems to become more a part of your vagina, and is soft, wet and higher up.

When you get pregnant, the cervix will be high up and soft, yet tightly closed. Later in pregnancy big changes will occur with your cervix in preparation for childbirth.

The Cervix in the Final Weeks of Pregnancy

While no two women or pregnancies are identical, some general observations can be made. First, effacement begins in the final month of pregnancy. This is the thinning of the cervix, and is measured by your doctor in percentage, such as 50 percent effaced, or 70 percent effaced. This thinning needs to start before dilation begins for the process to go smoothly. Braxton Hick contractions may begin which help with this process.

The cervix will begin dilating during the early stages of the first stage of labor. Contractions help the cervix to open and then help move the baby down the birth canal. When the cervix gets opened, that's when you can expect to see the mucus plug. This bloody mucus was blocking the cervix opening during pregnancy.

A fully open or dilated cervix is measured as 10 centimeters. Every pregnancy is quite different, as some women will dilate a few centimeters before even beginning actual labor, while other will have a high, closed cervix until hours into labor. Every cervix seems to have its own clock and sense of time. Some women dilate at a predictable rate, while others have slow dilation for hours, and then suddenly they go from 4 to 10 centimeters in minutes. It's always a surprise! This should encourage the woman who is due and is told she has not dilated at all yet. That doesn't mean labor is necessary far off.

You need to listen to your health care provider during labor when you begin to feel an urge to push, because if you are not fully effaced and dilated, you may cause swelling or bleeding of the cervix which will interfere with birthing. Sometimes, your doctor will instruct you to pant or blow to avoid bearing down during this time. Other times, doctors may advise slow and controlled pushing to help with the final dilation. At any rate, when you get to this point you know baby is nearly here!

Related Articles

Signs of Labor

Signs of Labor: The Mucus Plug

Q&A: What Does My Doctor Mean by My Cervix is Soft?

Preterm Labor & How To Avoid Preterm Labor

Hypnobirthing, A New Way To Labor


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Christal Feb 25, 2018 08:34:05 AM ET

I'm 33 weeks 2days pregnant and my doctor said my cervix was softening. i'm unsure on what he means.

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Shania Jan 4, 2017 06:43:59 AM ET

I'm 39 weeks wednesday, i had my appointment today to find out i'm not dilated but my cervix is soft and i'm 50% effaced, -2 head and i don't know what that means. can i go in soon or what??? just need answers or what will help speed it up?

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brittany Jun 7, 2014 02:46:29 AM ET

I'm 3 days overdue and my stomach hurts real bad off and on. when should i go to the hospital?

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