As a first-time pregnant person, I’m anxious about labor and delivery (because, duh). I’m not really sure what to expect as far as when I’ll “know” it’s time. What do contractions actually feel like? And what about my cervix? That’s a pretty important part of labor, since it has to open enough for the baby to be pushed out. I asked an OB-GYN for five signs your cervix is opening in the hopes I’ll be prepared and know the difference between lightning crotch and the real deal.
What does it mean for your cervix to open? According to What to Expect, it means you’re getting close to labor. “Beginning in your ninth month of pregnancy, your practitioner will look for clues that labor is getting closer, palpating your abdomen, and giving you an internal exam to check your cervix,” What to Expect noted. And during that internal exam, your doctor is checking to see whether your cervix has dilated (opened) and effaced. “And if it's begun to soften and move to the front of the vagina (another indicator that labor is getting closer),” the website noted.
However, just because your cervix is opening, it doesn’t necessarily mean you’re in labor, Jamil Abdur-Rahman, OB-GYN, medical travel blogger, and half of the twin duo for TwinDoctorsTV tells Romper. “Sometimes the cervix will shorten and then open if a woman has a condition called cervical incompetence. Cervical incompetence results when the cervix has previously been damaged.”
And what kind of damage would that entail? Abdur-Rahman says it’s typically from a “previous delivery that was complicated by a cervical laceration … or from cervical biopsies that have been done to investigate an abnormal pap smear.” Once your cervix has been “damaged,” it’s difficult for your cervix to support the weight of the baby, the placenta, and the amniotic fluid, and your growing uterus, as well as the ability to “maintain its structural integrity,” as a pregnancy progresses. “Eventually, this increasing weight becomes too great and the cervix just buckles under the pressure. When the cervix buckles, it first shortens and then eventually dilates. This can ultimately result in preterm delivery and pregnancy loss,” Abdur-Rahman explains.
Yikes. So what does your cervix opening feel like when you’re in labor, and what are the signs? Abdur-Rahman listed five potential signals you may have to know that your cervix is opening.
1. Increasing Pelvic Pressure
According to Abdur-Rahman, while your cervix is opening, it actually "frequently shortens," as well. "As it shortens, the baby's head tends to move down lower into the pelvis creating a sensation of pelvic pressure."
2. A Persistent Mucus Discharge
Oh that lovely mucus plug (and what a name, right?). Abdur-Rahman says as you're dilating, your mucus plug will be "expelled. This causes an initially large mucus discharge as the plug comes out. This initial discharge is then followed frequently by a persistent discharge and the cervix tries to create a new plug." Anyone else feel the same way about the term "mucus plug" as they do the word moist? Just me?
3. Vaginal Spotting And/Or Bleeding
This seems reasonable since your cervix is stretching and opening, right? You'll definitely want to keep an eye on it.
4. Constantly Feeling Like You Need To Pee Or Poop
According to Abdur-Rahman, "As the baby's head moves into the pelvis, it often will press on the colon and the bladder. This often makes women feel as though they need to frequently urinate or have a bowel movement." Will this feel differently than the entirety of your third trimester of having to pee? I'm not sure.
5. Uterine Cramping And/Or Contractions
Hopefully, during the beginning of labor, your baby's head will be moving down, getting ready to come out. And as that head moves on down the birth canal, "it applies pressure to the lower portions of the uterus that sit just above the cervix. This then causes the uterus to send signals to the brain indicating that 'it is time to have a baby,'" Abdur-Rahman explains. "The brain then releases hormones that cause contractions." Abdur-Rahman adds that this sequence of events is called "The Ferguson's Reflex."
Along with these signs, What to Expect said that in early labor, you can expect your cervix to dilate 3 centimeters, and by the time you’re in “active labor,” you should be at 7 centimeters. At the end of the transitional phase (and when it’s time to push that baby on out) your cervix should open to 10 centimeters. If you notice the five signs above, it may be a good time to call your healthcare provider — your baby just might be on the way.
Jamil Abdur-Rahman, OB-GYN
Editor's note: This post has been updated from its original version