Here's How Your Doctor Can Tell If Your Cervix Is Actually Dilating

As you reach the end of your pregnancy, it's not uncommon for certain questions to pop into your mind, like "When will this baby be making their appearance?" and "Will I ever see my feet again?" And those weekly appointments during the last month don't help keep your curiosity at bay. Of course, you feel like you have a fair gauge on what your baby's heart beat should sound like and you barely care about the number on the scale anymore. But if you are wondering, "How can you tell if your cervix is dilating?" and other more specific things, then experts say you might not get the answers you are seeking.

"Every woman’s body is different, but some women may have some cervical change which includes softening of the cervix, shortening of the cervix or dilatation beginning around 37 weeks," Dr. Yvonne Bohn, OB-GYN at Providence Saint John's Health Center in Santa Monica, California. "However many women may not show any dilation even at their due date. The reality is that the due date is an estimate with the delivery falling as early as two weeks before to up to two weeks after."

On the other hand, Bohn says, "Women can also have no dilation and then the cervix can open rapidly."

According to Healthline, a woman is considered to be in active labor once the cervix dilates to around 3 to 4 centimeters — with full dilation being at 10 centimeters — and contractions "begin to get longer, stronger, and closer together." To give you an idea of what those numbers mean, the website noted that 2 centimeters is about the size of a cherry, while 4 centimeters would be approximately the size of a lime slice. On the other hand, 10 centimeters of cervical dilation is about the size of a bagel.

But how exactly can your healthcare provider tell if you are dilated? There are two ways for your OB to check, the first being with a pelvic ultrasound. The second — and more common — measure is with a cervical check. During a pelvic exam, your doctor will also check for other signs of labor nearing, like cervical softening or "effacement." According to the American Pregnancy Association (APA), effacement is the process by which the cervix prepares for delivery. "After the baby has engaged in the pelvis, it gradually drops closer to the cervix. The cervix will gradually soften, shorten, and become thinner," the website noted. That's why you will hear your doctor use phrases like "ripen" or "thinning" when discussing effacement.

So, if you can't lean on dilation as a definite sign of labor — after all, I was only dilated 1 centimeter when my water broke in the middle of Target — then what else might signal baby day is near?

Well, in addition to your water breaking like yours truly's did, you may also begin to notice contractions. If you are curious about how to time them, it's understandable. Bohn says that contractions should last a minute from start to finish, five minutes apart, and for one hour. "We call it 5-1-1," she says. "If you break your bag of water, labor will usually start within 24 hours." Other signs labor is near include nausea, loose stools, loss of your mucus plug, and a burst of nesting energy that has you mopping the floors and cleaning out closets at 2 a.m.

Ultimately, experts say all of the calculations and measurements lead up to one thing — your baby will make their appearance, it's just a matter of when they choose to do so. As for seeing your toes again, well, that will happen too.

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