Everything You Need to Know About Cervix Dilation Stages

Happy man holding his pregnant partner’s hand.

The body goes through many extraordinary changes during pregnancy, labor, and delivery, but one of the most amazing is cervical dilation. Do you understand this process? It starts a few weeks before the baby arrives, and the cervix becomes fully dilated during the final stage of labor. When a woman is labor, terms will be tossed around like cervical effacement and dilation, which are both terms referring to the cervix. Here’s a guide to help you understand the stages of cervical dilation.

The three stages of labor are latent, active, and delivery. The cervix is the lowest part of the uterus, which opens to allow a baby to pass through. That opening is called dilation, and active labor doesn’t start until a woman is about five to six centimeters dilated. To deliver a baby, the cervix must be fully effaced, which means thin, and dilated- (opened) to 10 centimeters. The effacement begins before the dilation, as a cervix must be fully effaced to dilate. The healthcare provider will begin checking the dilation of the cervix during the final few office visits by doing a cervical exam and will check it several times during labor. Let’s examine the stages of labor and how the cervix progresses.

  • The first stage of labor has two phases: latent and active. Together, these two phases vary in duration, and last longer in first time mothers than in women who have already had a baby.
    • The latent stage is primarily waiting. In fact, for first time moms, it can last a long time before anything seems to happen. During this phase, contractions are not strong or regular, and the cervix is getting shorter and softer, beginning to open.
    • The active stage of labor once the cervix has dilated to about five or six centimeters. Contractions at this point are longer, stronger, and closer together than they were in the latent phase. The active stage ends when the cervix is 10 cm dilated. While one centimeter is about the size of a blueberry, 10 is about the size of a bagel. If the cervix isn’t dilating properly, the doctor may try some different tactics to speed the process.
  • The second stage of labor begins when the cervix is fully dilated. This doesn’t mean the baby is coming immediately, because the baby may not be in the right position yet. Once the baby has moved down the birth canal fully, it will be time to push. The pushing phase can last for minutes or hours, depending on whether or not the baby is delivered with just a few pushes. First time moms and women who have had epidurals may need to spend a longer time pushing. During this time, the mother will be encouraged to change positions, squat, and rest between contractions. If the baby is not progressing, the doctor may need to employ forceps, a vacuum, or a Caesarean delivery, depending on the health of the mom and baby, the hospital policy, and the doctor’s own discretion. The second stage is over when the baby has been delivered.
  • The third stage of labor happens when the baby has already been born. This may seem strange, but it’s an important stage. This is when the woman delivers the placenta, which is a completely separate organ formed during the pregnancy. Once the baby is born, the placenta must be expelled, since it is no longer needed. Contractions continue, and while they are not as strong as the ones in the second stage, they are enough to expel the placenta, usually with just one push. This stage lasts between five and 30 minutes, and is hastened if the mother begins breastfeeding the baby. After birth, it takes the cervix about six weeks to return to normal.

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