It's been over 10 years since I first gave birth, and I can still remember what it felt like to be 6 centimeters dilated. I can recall begging my midwife to check my cervix, because I was sure, and desperately hoped, it was time to push. It wasn't. "You still have a ways to go," she told me. I then asked for an epidural so quickly she thought I was joking. So, what does 6 centimeters dilated feel like? Well, in my experience, hell. But, of course, every body and every labor and delivery is different, so your mileage may vary.
To learn more about what labor feels like at this ever-so-intense period of childbirth, Romper spoke to Dr. Huma Farid, MD, an OB-GYN at Harvard Medical School and Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston, Massachusetts, New Mexico-based doula Jaimie Kennedy, and experienced moms Sara Bauman and Betsy Jael.
The period of labor that occurs between 6 and 10 centimeters dilation is called active labor, according to the Mayo Clinic, and is pretty intense for most people. Before you are ready to push, your contractions will get stronger and closer together, and you might experience other labor symptoms like nausea, weakness, your water breaking, and back pain. "Contractions will be coming more intensely, and frequently than early labor, but you should still be getting rest between," Kennedy tells Romper. "You might feel a stronger sense of tightening, pulling downward, and maybe even some pressure on your cervix or bottom, too."
When it came to her personal experience, Farid tells Romper that 6 centimeters dilation felt terrible. "I don't know how else to summarize it for you, but speaking from personal experience, I arrived at the hospital 6 cm dilated and it was the most intense pain I have ever had," she says. "The pain does come and go, and so in between contractions I felt totally normal, but when I had a contraction it was incredibly painful."
But for Bauman, a mom of two, her first time experiencing active labor wasn't all that bad. "With my first, I think I was about 6 centimeters when I got my epidural, and honestly that’s about when I first started feeling any kind of contractions." And during her second labor and delivery experience, Bauman slept through early labor entirely. "With my second, contractions woke me up and were already five minutes apart," she tells Romper. "When I got to the hospital, she told me I was 8 cm dilated, and [my contractions] were already 2-3 minutes apart. Unbelievably, they still managed to get me that epidural in time."
Mom and doula Jael had vastly different experiences with active labor during her two deliveries, telling Romper that 6 cm dilated with her first felt very different than 6 centimeters dilated with her second. "The first time, I went from 4 to 10 centimeters in 25 minutes, so I felt like my body was breaking in half," she tells Romper. "My second labor was much longer and never got very painful. At 6 centimeters, I was walking, laughing, and talking. It just felt like bad period cramps to me."
You never know how you will cope in labor until you are there, so give yourself grace to accept the help available if you need it
Jael doesn't consider her second labor and delivery experience to be "typical," noting that as a doula she doesn't often see clients talking through contractions. "When the contraction comes, they have to stop and focus," she says. "That’s the point when most people instinctively start doing something for pain relief, like swaying, moaning, and rocking."
Depending on your preferences, during this stage of labor you can usually ask for either an epidural or nitrous oxide, or try other non-pharmacological options like soaking in a tub, massage, or changing positions to help manage the pain, according to the American College of Obstetricians and Gynecologists.
"You can receive an epidural at this point, but most obstetricians will not offer short-acting medications, such as dilaudid, because of the potential for its impact on the baby," Farid tells Romper. "Most women who want pain medication will opt for an epidural at this point."
For those who desire to labor sans medicine, Kennedy recommends preparing yourself for the pain and intensity of active labor before delivery. "If someone is seeking an unmedicated birth, I definitely recommend a good childbirth preparation class and reading resources to learn pain management and coping techniques," she says. "I also suggest having a good birth partner and/or a doula who is completely on board with your birth plans and ready to support in any way you need." Farid says that being in a tub or on an exercise ball can be "very helpful at this stage," too.
Because you might not know what active labor be like before you experience it, Kennedy recommends coming prepared to potentially change your mind regarding pain management. "It can be a good idea to come up with what you’d like to try if the pain does get to a point where you feel you’re not coping with breathing, counter pressure, or other support from your birth team," she says. "You never know how you will cope in labor until you are there, so give yourself grace to accept the help available if you need it."