Dilation: The First Stage of Childbirth

Dilation: The First Stage of Childbirth

Last update: 30 April, 2018

Childbirth consists of several stages, the first of which is dilation. Did you know you can dilate up to 10 centimeters?

Without a doubt, it’s incredible what your body is capable of doing in order to give birth to a baby. If you want to know more about the wonder of dilation, keep on reading.

Dilation is the process through which the cervix – or uterine wall – opens up. This channel connects directly to the vagina.

Dilation is a slow and painful process, but it prepares you for the moment you’ve been waiting for: the birth of your baby.

Many women experience the dilation process as something absolutely unbearable. This is especially true for first-time mothers, as it takes them a long, long time to dilate sufficiently. It really is difficult to put up with the pain for so many hours.

If you still haven’t gone through this experience, you’re likely a bit anxious about the pain we’re talking about. Don’t worry, it’s normal to be nervous.

We’re going to tell you everything you need to know about dilation.

What brings on dilation?

When your uterus contracts, the muscle fibers of your uterine wall stretch and spread out. These contractions produce pain that becomes stronger as you get closer and closer to the birth of your baby.

Dilation: The First Stage of Childbirth

Dilation can be divided into two main phases :

  • Passive dilation. Though this initial phase only brings you to 3 cm dilation, it’s the longest phase. Irregular contractions cause you to dilate, and they become more intense and frequent with the passing of time.
  • Active dilation. The second and last phase of dilation brings you from 3 cm to 10 cm dilation. This phase is much quicker than the previous one, as the contractions are much more frequent and intense. When you reach 10 cm, then you’re officially in labor.

“Allow your body to do what it’s prepared to do”

What can I do to aid the dilation process?

We know it’s difficult, but try to stay as calm as possible. Of course, staying calm won’t make the process go that much faster.

Rather, it’s about letting nature take over. Allow your body to do what it’s prepared to do.

If you’re especially nervous or fearful, your muscles will tend to contract. This will only make you more uncomfortable, and make dilation more difficult.

Taking a walk can help your baby get into the right position for advancing through the birth canal. 

Walking also contributes to the opening of the uterine wall. Furthermore, going for a stroll can help to relieve some of the pain and numbness.

There are also different positions you can try that will be sure to help:

  • Lie down on a bed on your side and place a pillow between your legs. This position helps to open the uterine wall, and what’s more, it will help your lower back rest.
  • Sit in a chair facing backwards. This will allow your back to rest and will accelerate the dilation process.
  • Get down on all fours over your bed. Sway slowly forwards and backwards.

Lastly, you can use a pilates exercise ball. These balls are beneficial throughout pregnancy and especially during the long hours of dilation.

Sit down on the ball and allow yourself to sway smoothly, and bounce very lightly on the ball.

Dilation: The First Stage of Childbirth

Epidural and dilation

An epidural is an injection placed in the spinal canal, or vertebrae. It consists of a local anesthesia and serves to put the lower half of your body to sleep (from the waist down).

When we talk about epidurals and dilation, several questions often come up.

  • Does it hurt? The epidural is injected in a sensitive area, so you may experience discomfort when the injection takes place.
  • Will I feel anything? Once the epidural becomes effective, you won’t lose feeling altogether, but you will feel a great relief from the pain of your contractions. Labor will continue just the same, but without as much pain.
  • How many centimeters do I need to dilate to receive an epidural? You can get your epidural once you’ve reached 3 or 4 inches dilation. If you reach 7 or 8 centimeters without an epidural, then the injection is no longer necessary. You’ll already have gotten through the worst part.
  • Does receiving an epidural make dilation take longer? Recent investigations affirm that dilation doesn’t take longer with an epidural.

If you have more questions, talk to your OB/GYN, doula or midwife. They’ll be able to help you clearly understand everything you need to know about epidurals and their application during labor.

All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.

  • Brown, H. Parto. Manual MSD- Versión para público general. [En línea].
  • Gómez, A. Periodo de dilatación. Sociedad Española de Ginecología y Obstetricia. [En línea].

This text is provided for informational purposes only and does not replace consultation with a professional. If in doubt, consult your specialist.