Dilation. Effacement. Thinning. There is a lot going on with your vagina and cervix as the time nears to have your baby. Most of it sounds like some cross between a medical condition and architectural terms. When they start talking numbers, you may think there was a vaginal math class you missed. It's all pretty confusing, but if you know what's happening, you can figure out exactly how your labor is progressing. Like what does it mean for your cervix to thin? Because honestly, it sounds serious.
The process by which your body readies itself to shove new life from its depths begins with what is referred to as dilation and effacement, according to the University of Michigan. Effacement, otherwise known as the thinning of the cervix, is when your cervix stretches and gets thinner. The cervix is the lowermost part of your uterus, and attaches the uterus to your vagina. It's normally about 3 to 4 inches in length, but when it thins and opens (which is a process called dilation), it stretches to near completely flat. According to the University of Michigan, you must be 100 percent effaced, or thinned, and dilated 10 centimeters before you can begin to push.
It's all a pretty amazing process. I spoke with certified nurse midwife Kara Manglani, CNM of The Fertile Times, and asked herfor more information on a thinning cervix. She tells Romper, "When you are in labor, your cervix thins and dilates. The cervix thinning is called 'effacement'. We refer to effacement based on the percentage of cervical thickness that is gone."
Manglani says that this happens in stages. "In early labor, your cervix may be 50 percent effaced. Later in labor, your cervix will be 90 percent effaced and when you are fully dilated and there is no cervix left, your cervix is 100 percent effaced." My OB-GYN likened it to the taffy you see being pulled in the boardwalk stores, which is an image that will never leave your brain now that I've put it there. You're welcome.
The reason doctors and midwives look so closely at effacement is because it lets them know where you are in your progression, says Manglani. "Dilation is not the only thing that is important. We are also considering the thickness of the cervix, how soft or stretchy the cervix feels, the position of the cervix, and the position of the baby's head." Basically, if your doctor says your cervix is thinning and you're close to your due date, it's probably a good sign labor is on its way.
I remember the first health book that I ever read had a terrifying description of both dilation and effacement. I was probably only 9 or 10 years old, and it was one of my mother's old nursing school textbooks. Right that minute I decided that parenthood was not for me, because that was a whole new level of "life is unfair for girls" that I had never previously contemplated. I don't know how I thought babies were born before that time, but I think it had something to do with your belly button magically opening up like a painless flower and allowing the child to spill forth like a gift from Heaven. Way to rip off my blinders by not selling back your old books, Mom.
Labor is a very complex, but arguably very cool process. In the end, it only took me 15 years after seeing the pictures of the thinned cervix to decide that I was tough enough to handle childbirth, but you can absolutely believe I was thinking about them when I went to the doctor and she told me I was 50 percent effaced. There might have even been a small shudder.