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4 Signs You’re Dilating, Which Could Mean It’s Almost Baby Time

Any minute now.

by Tessa Shull and Jennifer Parris
Originally Published: 

Even if you’ve had the most perfect pregnancy up until now, with nary a hint of heartburn, at some point, you’re probably going to want to just give birth already. But what are some true signs you’re dilating? If it’s your first time, it’s tough to know what dilating feels like.

First, you’ll need to understand the details of dilation and the circumstances surrounding your cervix. Dilation is the opening of the cervix, and it can happen anytime during your ninth month of pregnancy, or even overnight. It’s measured in centimeters, starting at one centimeter (which is about the size of a pea) and going all the way up to 10 centimeters (the size of a grapefruit slice).

The cervix is an important player in pregnancy, particularly when it comes to delivery. As detailed by the study, “The mechanical role of the cervix in pregnancy,” the cervix goes from being closed during your nine months to protect the fetus from infection and allow it to fully develop to subsequently having to shorten, soften, and dilate in preparation for labor. You might hear your OB-GYN use terms like “ripening” or “thinning” in relation to your cervix, which means that it’s getting ready for the big event.

But while you might get super excited thinking that labor has started if your doctor tells you that you’ve begun dilating during an exam, don’t be so quick to head to the hospital. Because if you’ve ever been sent home after only opening up 1 centimeter dilated, then you know that dilation is really a numbers game. “Early dilation doesn’t necessarily correlate with anything, though it can indicate that you won’t go too far post-date,” Taraneh Shirazian M.D., OB-GYN at NYU and founder of Mommy Matters, tells Romper. You’ll need to be 10 centimeters dilated in order to start pushing, after all.

Your OB-GYN will probably check how dilated you are at your prenatal appointments as you get closer to your due date. But if you’re curious between appointments, here’s how to tell if you’re dilating without checking or calling your doctor.


You may have mild or irregular contractions.

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An “uptick in contractions” is one of the main signs you’re dilating, Dr. Shirazian explains, since contractions contribute to dilation. Still, there’s no need to be alarmed or assume you’re in active labor until you’re having consistent contractions that happening closer together and gaining in strength.

“Typically contraction frequency, duration, and strength can give us a good picture of how far along we are in labor,” says Jada Shapiro, a postpartum doula and founder of boober. “People in early labor (less than 6 centimeters dilated) will usually have contractions that are anywhere from 20 minutes or more apart to 6 minutes apart.”

She explains that women who are not that dilated yet can typically speak through their contractions, and might be able to engage in other activities, like talking or watching TV. But when your dilation is more advanced, (say, 6 to 8 centimeters along), then you might have a harder time focusing on anything but the contractions.


You can feel your cervix thinning out during a self-exam.

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Let’s say that you just can’t wait for your next OB-GYN appointment to know if you’re dilating. Can you feel your cervix dilating at home? Well, technically you can do your own cervical self-exam — if you know what you’re looking for (and you might want to think twice about attempting it at all if you have super long nails).

If your cervix (which you might be able to feel at the end of your vagina), feels thick and hard, effacement might not be underway yet. If it feels thin and mushy, you could be dilating. But you might want to leave the poking and prodding to the experts, advises Shapiro. “Technically, someone in labor could reach in and feel their own cervix, but unless they’re trained, they likely won’t be able to assess how many centimeters dilated they are,” she says.


Your mucus plug dislodges.

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If you’d rather learn how to know you’re dilating without checking, trust that when you see your mucus plug, it’s a good sign you’re beginning to dilate. But what does it even look like?

“It’s a glob of mucus that is filled with brownish discharge and maybe a little blood,” says Juliana Parker, RNC-OB, a labor and delivery nurse. “Alarming as it may be to some, it’s not even a reason to call your doctor; just be on alert that labor may be starting soon.” You can tell it apart from normal vaginal discharge by its color and because it’ll be thicker, too. You might pass it while you’re peeing or pooping, so you might not always notice when it comes out. But if it does, dilation is underway. Losing your mucus plug is not the same as your water breaking, so there’s no need to panic. It can happen anywhere from a couple weeks to a couple hours before labor, and more than once.


You see the bloody show.

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If you thought that your mucus plug and the bloody show were the same thing, think again. While they are both pivotal in alerting you that your pregnancy is transitioning into labor, they both serve different purposes. Although its name might seem kind of graphic, the bloody show is a surefire sign that labor is well on its way. It’s a discharge of mucus that is often pink or brown. Unlike your mucus plug, which works to keep your cervix sealed off, the bloody show signifies that the blood vessels in your cervix are breaking as you dilate. So once you see the bloody show, it’s a sign that the real show is about to start.

Dilation doesn’t have to be a mysterious part of pregnancy. By knowing the signs, you can guesstimate how far along you are — and how soon it will be until you’re at those all-important 10 centimeters of dilation, when you’ll be able to deliver your beautiful baby.

Study cited:

Myers, K., Feltovich, H., Mazza, E., Vink, J., Bajka, M., Wapner, R., Hall, T., House, M. “The mechanical role of the cervix in pregnancy.” 2015


Dr. Taraneh Shirazian M.D., OB/GYN at NYU and founder of Mommy Matters

Juliana Parker, RNC-OB, a labor and delivery nurse

Jada Shapiro, a postpartum doula and founder of boober

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