Throughout pregnancy there are markers that indicate the progress of your little one's growth: The sound of their heartbeat, that first kick, the moment they become so large that each movement looks like an alien is inhabiting your belly. But there are also a few that point in the direction of your little one being ready to make their debut. Of course, there are contractions, but you'll hear a lot of talk about dilation and that's because it's a good indicator of how close you are to birth. And if you are wondering how to see if you're dilated, then there are a few ways to do exactly that.
First of all, depending on your healthcare provider, there is a good chance your doctor will begin checking your cervix's dilation and effacement around 36 weeks. According to Mayo Clinic, they will measure the dilation in centimeters from zero (no dilation) to 10 (fully dilated). Once your cervix has effaced — meaning it is thinner and softer — it begins to open, or become dilated.
Of course, you could also check out your cervix on your own if you are up for it. "I think it’s a good and empowering thing for a woman to check her own cervix for dilation," midwife Gloria Lemay told Babble. "This is not rocket science, and you hardly need a medical degree or years of training to do it."
There are, however, a few things to keep in mind if you choose to go at it solo. (Checking your cervix, I mean.) According to Babble, your cervix, which sits at the top of the birth canal/vagina, will feel firm, "like the tip of your nose" during pregnancy. But once dilation begins, you will be able to easily slip your finger into its opening and it will feel like, "putting your finger between soft, puckered lips," the publication noted. If you give this a shot, then you might even feel the shape of your baby’s head thorough the amniotic sac.
Oh, and speaking of the amniotic sac, it's important that you don't check your cervix if your water has broken in order to avoid risk of infection.
Of course, there are other ways to know if you are nearing the end of your pregnancy, Darby Morris, a birth doula and founder of Sweetbay Doula, tells Romper in an email interview. "The first is Braxton Hicks contractions, which can be felt as early as six weeks into a pregnancy, but are not generally felt until the second or third trimester," Morris says. "These contractions are usually felt on sides of uterus rather than the top."
You might also notice that about two weeks before your labor starts your baby will drop low into your pelvis "which often has been described as feeling like you have a bowling ball between your legs," Morris notes. You might also lose your mucus plug which looks like a bunch of cervical mucus. "Other signs include vaginal engorgement/wetness, bloody show, loose bowel movements for one to two days, and your bag of waters breaking," Morris says, adding that, when it comes down to it, dilation is not as important as these other signs.
And you do have the option to forgo cervical checks — and, therefore, assessing dilation — altogether if that's what you choose. If your doctor insists, then "ask why they want the information and how it might (or might not) change your care," Fit Pregnancy noted.
"A vaginal exam can be painful, can irritate your cervix and cause it to bleed, or can even cause your bag of waters to break prematurely," Morris says. "It also doesn't give you any information about how much longer you have until labor begins." Morris says cervical checks might also affect your mental health around labor.
"For example, if you have been having labor contractions for a long time and you're only 4 centimeters when you're checked, then you can get discouraged and start doing math in your head. 'I've been in labor for 8 hours and I've only gotten to 4 centimeters?! That means I have 12 more hours to get to 10 centimeters. How in the world am I going to do this for 12 more hours?!' In reality, labor is not linear at all and you may only have 3 more hours, or even less than that," Morris says.
On the other hand, Morris says important times to get a vaginal exam include when you are assessing which pain medication to use during labor (if you're going to use one), if there are signs of baby in distress, and/or dysfunctional labor patterns.
The moral of the story? There are many ways to check on the progress of your baby (dilation being one of them), but the end result is singular — a sweet, little bundle of joy in your arms.