Cervix dilation chart: Stages of labor and what to expect

Looking at a cervix dilation chart can help people to understand what’s happening at each stage of labor.

Each woman experience labor differently. In this article, we discuss in detail how the cervix is likely to change throughout the stages of labor, and what to expect at each stage.

Cervical dilation and labor

Most of the time, the cervix is a small, tightly closed hole. It prevents anything from getting into or out of the uterus, which helps to protect the baby.

During labor, intense contractions of the uterus help move the baby down and eventually out of the pelvis, and into the vagina. These contractions put pressure on the cervix and cause it to expand slowly. Contractions tend to get stronger, closer together, and more regular as labor progresses.

Stages of labor

Most medical guides divide labor into three stages:

  • Stage one: early, active, and transition labor. Contractions begin, the cervix dilates, and the baby moves down in the pelvis. Stage one is complete when the cervix has dilated to 10 centimeters (cm).
  • Stage two: The body begins pushing out the baby. During this stage, women often feel a strong urge to push. This stage ends with the birth of the baby.
  • Stage three: Contractions push out the placenta. This stage ends with the delivery of the placenta, usually within a few minutes after the birth of the baby.

However, many women in labor may feel that they are experiencing many more stages than this.

Stage one: early labor

In the early stages of labor, the cervix dilates to the following sizes:

  • 1 cm, about the size of a cheerio
  • 2 cm, the size of a small to medium-sized grape
  • 3 cm, the size of a quarter

Late in pregnancy, the cervix may have already dilated several centimeters before a woman experiences any symptoms of labor.

Some women, particularly those who are giving birth for the first time, have difficulty telling whether labor has begun. This is because contractions in early labor are often mild and irregular, growing steadily more intense as the labor progresses and the cervix dilates.

A few minutes after the birth, a woman may experience weaker contractions. After a contraction or two, the body should expel the placenta.

If the body does not entirely expel the placenta, a doctor or midwife may have to help deliver it. Sometimes, they will give a woman an injection of synthetic oxytocin to speed up delivery and prevent excessive bleeding.

Shortly after delivery, the cervix begins contracting back down to its previous size. This process can take several days to several weeks.

As the uterus and cervix shrink, many women will feel some contractions. Most women bleed for several weeks after giving birth.

Takeaway: Every labor is different

Labor is different for each woman. It typically lasts longer with a first birth, but the length and type of labor vary greatly between individuals.

Some people experience labor that consists of a weaker type of contraction for days or weeks before giving birth. Others give birth in a matter of minutes, while some labors take days. Most fall somewhere in the middle.

Labor often starts slowly, becoming progressively more intense. It may also start and stop, or slow during moments of stress or intrusion.

Visualizing the cervix expanding might help some people understand the source of labor pain, offering a sense of control and deeper insight into the processes of labor.

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