Dilation is basically the measurement of how open your cervix is at any given moment. When in labor, it can be useful as an indicator for progress. It is measured with fingers (digitally) and in increments of centimeters from 1 to 10.
Cervical exams are useful prior to pregnancy for natural family planning (NFP), tracking the cervix’s firmness or consistency and it mucous discharge changes, in order to predict ovulation. This gives the couple information to decide whether they would prefer to block a possible pregnancy by using a barrier method or by abstaining from intercourse.
During the earlier stages of labor, it can be very useful for you to be familiar with your own cervix, making you aware of its changes before you might be ready to meet with your birth team. For example, if you are mildly contracting every several minutes, you might want to get a baseline (beginning number) of your cervical dilation at that stage. Over a course of time, maybe several hours (this differs for each laboring person) if you feel your labor is progressing (contractions are coming faster, harder, longer and stronger or more intensely) , you might want to check again. If you are noting a change in dilation, or the opening of the cervix itself), it is probably time to alert your birthing team and head to your birth place or have them come to you. Your midwives will also ask about any mucous secretion changes (increased mucous discharge even with some light period like bleeding) as these are normal indicators to see in the active labor stages. Active labor is typically described as 4 or more centimeters with regular uterine contractions. Be advised, some labors can progress rapidly from 4 centimeters on, so if contractions are getting intense, you need to be attended by your team ASAP!
Checking your cervix yourself gives you more control over your early birthing stages and your midwives can always check behind you if you aren’t sure of what you are feeling. Make you wash your hands thoroughly prior to checking. We advise limiting all exams once membranes have ruptured, or water has broken, because at that point the pathway is open to infection if this membrane “bubble” protecting the baby has been ruptured. This is why your midwife uses gloves to check you. Your own germs are familiar to your body, someone else’s are considered foreign.
Want to learn more? Talk to your midwives at your next visit!