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 three 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 dilated can you be without being in labor?
Can you dilate without getting contractions?
You can both dilate without contractions and you can have contractions without dilation. “The definition of labor is ‘contractions that lead to cervical dilation,’” board-certified OB-GYN Dr. Barbara McLaren, M.D., tells Romper. “You must have both contractions and dilation together for it to be considered labor.” She notes that usually dilation sans “appreciable contractions” occurs in people who have given birth before. “In general,” she adds, “I would not be concerned if the cervix was mildly dilated, meaning anything less than four centimeters, unless there are also regular, painful contractions happening as well.”
How dilated can you be without being in labor?
"We consider advanced dilation to be about four to five centimeters," says Megan Schmitt, M.D., a Park Nicollet OB-GYN who delivers at Methodist Hospital Family Birth Center in St. Louis Park, Minnesota. "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 four to five centimeters. But typically after that range, labor starts."
Considering you've got 10 centimeters to dilate before you have your baby, four or five means you've come a long way, baby. It also means that you can be shopping at Safeway with a super open cervix.
What causes advanced dilation before labor?
People who dilate most before labor begins tend to be multiparous: doctor-speak for people 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 McLaren, second-time pregnant parents often feel their babies kick sooner, sport their bumps a month earlier, dilate more quickly, and experience shorter second labors. (They've earned it.) “It's often the case that the more you do it, the better at it your body becomes,” McLaren tells Romper. “It's muscle memory in a way. Your body just gets smarter at it because it's done it before.”
"We consider fully dilated to be eight to 10 centimeters, and at that range I’ve never seen a woman that does not also have contractions," says Schmitt. "But if a mom is four to five centimeters, and is also having contractions, we will keep her in the hospital and can augment labor to get her to six to seven centimeters. Once a mom is six to 10 centimeters, she is technically in labor."
As a first-time mom, my three 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.
How to get labor going when you're 4 cm dilated
McLaren’s biggest suggestion to get things going is staying active — be it walking or having sex to induce labor (though not everyone will feel up for this). “Walking, low-impact movement, and exercise help to get things into gear before labor and delivery,” she explains. “With sex, there's actually a chemical in semen that helps to stimulate contractions.”
Another trick she suggests is nipple stimulation. “When your nipples are stimulated, it can trigger the body to release a chemical called oxytocin, which helps you go into labor,” she says. Often, doctors will administer Pitocin, a synthetic version of oxytocin, to progress or induce labor, according to McLaren. “To stimulate the natural process of oxytocin, squeeze the nipples or practice using your breast pump,” she offers, suggesting getting your partner involved as well.
If you’re 37 weeks or later, McLaren suggests a natural red raspberry leaf tea to possibly encourage contractions or evening primrose oil supplements.
Moral of the story: Everyone 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 four or even five 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.
Megan Schmitt, M.D., a Park Nicollet OB-GYN who delivers at Methodist Hospital Family Birth Center in St. Louis Park, Minnesota
Dr. Barbara McLaren, board-certified OB-GYN and co-founder of Kushae feminine wellness products
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