While every pregnancy and delivery is different, most women will agree that by the end of their 40-week pregnancy, they’re more than ready to meet their baby-to-be. And once labor begins, they’re really ready to clear the final hurdle.
So what can be done to speed up the process? Is it possible to somehow dilate faster during labor, so that you can hold your new baby sooner?
Understanding more about dilation and the stages of the birth process may give you some answers.
Dilation is a term used for the opening of the cervix. Both dilation and effacement, which refers to the thinning of the cervix, take place to provide an opening from your uterus to the birth canal so that your baby can be delivered.
For a vaginal delivery, the cervix needs to be 10 centimeters (cm) dilated and 100 percent effaced.
While cervical dilation is necessary for labor to progress, being dilated isn’t necessarily a sign that true labor is starting.
In some cases, women will dilate a few centimeters weeks before their due date. Others will dilate much faster, in just a few hours, and transition quickly between the stages of labor.
There are normally three stages of labor during childbirth.
Stage one is the longest stage, and it’s broken down into three parts. During early labor, the cervix dilates to 3 cm. Active labor occurs between 3 and 7 cm dilated. The transition phase is between 7 cm and full dilation at 10 cm.
Stage two is after full dilation until the baby is born.
During this stage, the placenta is delivered.
During your month 9 of pregnancy, your doctor will begin looking for signs that your body is preparing for labor. These prenatal visits may include internal exams to check your cervix. Your doctor will confirm whether your cervix has dilated and effaced.
Other things happen during the dilation and effacement process. You’ll lose the mucus plug, which has sealed the opening of your cervix during your pregnancy.
You may notice this in your underpants or the toilet. You could lose the mucus plug anywhere from a few hours to a few weeks before labor begins.
You may also notice bloody show, a term that refers to rupturing capillaries in your cervix. This can streak vaginal mucus pink or red.
You’ll know you’re moving into active labor (phase two of the first stage) when you begin feeling contractions that become steadily stronger and remain no matter how often you change positions.
If your due date is still a couple of weeks away, the best thing you can do is wait for nature to take its course: Let your cervix prepare in the most efficient and comfortable way possible for you and your baby.
But there may be medical reasons to speed up the process of dilation and kick-start labor. Medical intervention may be a good idea if:
- you’re almost two weeks past your due date, and labor has yet to begin
- your water has broken, but you aren’t experiencing contractions
- you have an infection in your uterus
- your baby isn’t growing at a steady pace
- there isn’t enough amniotic fluid around your baby
- you experience placental abruption, when the placenta peels away from the uterine wall before delivery
- you have a medical condition, like diabetes or high blood pressure, that is dangerous for you or your baby
If any of these scenarios apply to you and your cervix has yet to begin dilating and effacing, your doctor has a few options:
- Medications: Your doctor may apply the hormone prostaglandin topically to your cervix, or insert a prostaglandin suppository into your vagina. This hormone causes the cervix to soften and contractions to begin.
- Stripping the membranes: If your amniotic sac is still intact, membrane stripping may trigger labor. Your doctor or midwife will use a finger to swipe against the membranes connecting to the amniotic sac, which can trigger the uterus to release prostaglandin.
A synthetic form of the hormone oxytocin is another option your doctor may consider, especially if the prostaglandin gel or suppository isn’t working. It’s administered through an IV, and it usually brings on contractions within about 30 minutes.
Check with your doctor before trying nipple stimulation. It should be avoided with high-risk pregnancies.
Nipple stimulation is a natural way to induce labor because it triggers the release of oxytocin, which can cause contractions. While it isn’t directly linked to dilation, anything that starts labor will help.
You could stimulate your nipples manually, with a breast pump, or have your partner participate. Just don’t overdo it: Stick to one breast at a time (about five minutes apiece) and take a break during contractions.
While speeding up dilation is possible with medical intervention, it’s a decision that should be made with your doctor’s advice. Allowing your body time to prepare by itself is usually the best course of action.
You’ve made it this long, hang in there! Soon, you’ll be holding your newborn in your arms.