Can You Feel It When You Start To Dilate? The Signs Of Labor Are Subtle

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Your cervix is one heck of a system of muscles. It's the superhero of pregnancy. However, when it's done, it's all over. At the end of your pregnancy, these muscles will open up in a process referred to as dilation and it signals the beginning stages of childbirth. But can you feel it when you start to dilate? It seems like something you would notice, right? It's essentially your body opening up to let a baby skate on through — how could you not feel it?

Shockingly, because it's such a gradual process that can happen over the course of hours, days, or even weeks, it's not something that's likely to be readily apparent to you, according to the American Pregnancy Association. However, when it's fully open and effaced, you'll know it because that is when you'll feel the overwhelming desire to push.

And it's an all-consuming sort of desire. The only way I can truly describe it is as a deeply-rooted compulsion to bear down with all of your might and shove that baby out from between your legs with a ferocity unmatched by anything else you'll ever feel. Your whole body alights with the strange cadence of your contractions which guide you to push, and push hard.

When I was pregnant with my second child, I was apparently dilated 2 centimeters for what could've been days, or even a week or more. I went in to my OB-GYN's office to get my cervix checked and all of the other fun stuff that happens the last weeks of pregnancy, and she said, "Cat, you're over 2 centimeters dilated, and starting to efface." You could've knocked me over with a feather. I was expecting to hear many things — most of which had to do with my steady diet of Shake Shack and iced tea — but I wasn't prepared to learn that I was in the early stages of labor.

Later that day I would go on to lose my mucus plug, which my OB-GYN hypothesized had to do with getting a cervical exam as I was dilating. I was also placed on bedrest because of an issue with my anemia. The whole day was a big pile of suck. Mostly though, I couldn't understand how I could be so far dilated and have absolutely no idea. Granted, the only way to truly judge if you're dilating is to check your cervix, and I had no desire to digitally search around in my vagina, nor am I certain I could've managed over my belly at that point, so I suppose I shouldn't have been quite as shocked as I was.

I spoke with labor and delivery nurse Lisa Chisolm of Brooklyn, New York, and she tells Romper that many women who come into the unit where she works have no idea how far their labor has progressed beyond the pattern and intensity of their contractions. "Women are pleasantly surprised to find out that they're already 6 or 7 centimeters by the time they get to my floor." On the flip side of that, she remarks that women can also be disappointed when they find out they're not nearly as far gone as they thought. "If you come in thinking you're ready to push, and you're barely 3 centimeters, it's a blow."

When I went into labor with my son, I had almost reached transition by the time I was swept up to the labor and delivery floor. My water had been leaking all up and down 58th Street, and the pain was incredible. When the nurse checked me, she was shocked to find how fast I was progressing. So can you feel it when you start to dilate if you're already in labor? Probably not, notes Chisolm, but don't worry — you'll feel everything else.

Check out Romper's new video series, Bearing The Motherload, where disagreeing parents from different sides of an issue sit down with a mediator and talk about how to support (and not judge) each other’s parenting perspectives. New episodes air Mondays on Facebook.