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What is dilation?

Updated: Jul 19, 2023


The process of labour dilation is a critical aspect of childbirth. Dilation refers to the gradual opening of the cervix, which is the lower part of the uterus that connects to the vagina.

As labor progresses, the cervix dilates to allow the baby to pass through the birth canal. In this article, we will discuss the dilation process of labour, including what happens during each stage, how it is measured, and what factors can affect it.

Stages of Labour Dilation

The dilation process is divided into three stages, each of which represents a significant milestone in the labour process:

Early Labour - In this stage, the cervix begins to soften and thin out, a process known as effacement. This stage can last for several hours and may be accompanied by mild contractions.

Active Labour - This stage begins when the cervix reaches approximately 4 centimeters in dilation. Contractions become more frequent, longer, and stronger. This stage typically lasts 6-12 hours for first-time mothers and may be shorter for subsequent births.

Transition - The final stage of labour dilation is known as transition, which begins when the cervix reaches approximately 8-10 centimeters in dilation. Contractions are intense and frequent, and the mother may feel a strong urge to push. This stage typically lasts 30 minutes to 2 hours and ends with the complete dilation of the cervix.

How is Dilation Measured?

Dilation is measured in centimeters and may be assessed by your midwife during a vaginal exam (VE). It is entirely up to you whether or not you wish to accept a VE. Some people may find VE’s traumatic or may feel they disrupt the flow of labour.

If you are comfortable with accepting a VE, your midwife will insert gloved fingers into the vagina and measure how many centimeters the cervix has opened. They will also assess the effacement and position of the baby's head.

If you do not want to accept a VE, there are other ways in which a healthcare professional can determine how dilated you are such as your body language or the purple line which appears on your bottom.

Several factors can affect the dilation process of labor, including:

Baby's size and position - A larger baby or a baby in a tricky position can make dilation more challenging.

Interventions - Interventions such as induction or epidural anesthesia can slow down or speed up the dilation process.

Emotional state - Stress, anxiety, and fear can affect the mother's ability to relax and may slow down the dilation process.

Takeaway points to remember:

The dilation process is divided into three stages: early labor, active labor, and transition. Dilation is measured in centimeters and may be assessed by a healthcare provider during a vaginal exam. Several factors can affect the dilation process, including the baby's size and position, interventions, and emotional state. Understanding the dilation process and its potential challenges can help prepare mothers for a safe and successful childbirth experience.

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