How Far Can You Dilate Without Going Into Labor? Experts Explain

At some point in the third trimester, Braxton-Hicks gives way to the real deal — contractions, of course. Mine came in the middle of the night, super-villain style. When I told my OB-GYN, she checked me out and announced that I was 3 centimeters dilated. Surely I'd go into labor any day now, right? If you're feeling the midnight pains, or if your doctor's given you a report like mine, you might wonder, how far can you dilate without going into labor?

"We consider advanced dilation to be about 4 to 5 centimeters," writes Megan Schmitt, MD, a Park Nicollet OB-GYN who delivers at Methodist Hospital Family Birth Center in St. Louis Park, Minnesota, in an email with Romper. She continues:

"So there are some women, who are typically moms who have had babies before, that are not in labor and walking around with a cervix of 4 to 5 centimeters. But typically after that range, labor starts."

Considering you've got 10 centimeters to cover before you're ready to push, 4 or 5 means you've come a long way, baby. It also means that you can be shopping at Safeway with a super open cervix.

Women who dilate most before labor begins tend to be multiparous: doctor speak for women with multiple kids. The body doesn't forget a thing like childbirth, and the cervix loses some of its rigidity after you give birth once. According to Parents, second-time moms feel their babies kick sooner, sport their bumps a month earlier, dilate more quickly, and experience shorter labors. (They've earned it.)

"We consider fully dilated to be 8 to 10 centimeters, and at that range I’ve never seen a woman that does not also have contractions," writes Schmitt. "But if a mom is 4 to 5 centimeters, and is also having contractions, we will keep her in the hospital and can augment labor to get her to 6 to 7 centimeters. Once a mom is 6 to 10 centimeters, she is technically in labor."

As a first-time mom, my 3 centimeters didn't mean a whole lot, and those super-villainous contractions? They were just the trailer. The movie itself didn't start for two more weeks, and it was way more intense than advertised.

Moral of the story: every woman is different. Some cervixes remain tight as a fist until the big day. Others open early (especially if it's not their first time at the rodeo). You can walk around with dilation of 4 or even 5 centimeters, but without regular contractions, you're not in labor. But don't worry. Whether you dilate a little, a lot, or not at all, baby's on their way.