How to Know if Your Cervix Is Dilated—Without an Exam

Getting close to your due date and eager to meet your baby? We feel you. Cervical exams are best done by a health care professional, but if your provider approves, you can check yourself.

As you near the end of your pregnancy, it can be intense anticipating and preparing for your baby's arrival. That's why there's no shortage of old wives' tales surrounding the induction of labor—and no end to parents-to-be looking for signs that their little one will arrive soon. Knowing whether your cervix is dilated is one important way to figure out whether things are progressing.

An image of vagina on a colorful background.
Getty Images. Art: Jillian Sellers.

When your cervix dilates, it opens up over time to allow your baby to pass through the birth canal. But just being dilated doesn't mean labor is definitely around the corner. You could be four centimeters dilated, and stay that way for weeks—or your cervix could be completely closed and you could find yourself in active labor hours later. Again, it's just a measure of progress.

"There are no foolproof ways to tell that labor is imminent, or that it is a long ways off," says Marjorie Greenfield, M.D., vice chair of obstetrics and gynecology at University Hospitals Cleveland Medical Center, in Cleveland, and author of The Working Woman's Pregnancy Book. "Even [people] who have had babies before may experience each labor differently."

It's important to note that a cervical exam late in the pregnancy can pose some risks—like vaginal infection or the premature rupture of membranes. Be sure to consult your health care provider about whether or not you really need one and whether it's a good idea for you to check yourself.

How to Check for Cervical Dilation

If you decide to examine yourself, you should still be working with your provider in some fashion. If you're checking your cervix in preparation for a home birth, you should consult a certified professional midwife trained in handling emergencies. "No one should have a home birth without excellent experienced support and lots of education," says Dr. Greenfield.

The traditional way

You can do this, but it's not simple. "Learning to assess cervical dilation takes a while," admits Dr. Greenfield. "Even those of us who routinely do cervical checks and who might have tried to check ourselves aren't that accurate—it is hard to reach!" Here's how to perform a self-exam.

  • Thoroughly wash your hands. You don't want to accidentally introduce new bacteria into your vaginal canal, which could increase your risk of infection. Trim your nails to help avoid internal cuts.
  • Assume the position. Squatting with both legs spread might help you reach best, or you could try sitting or standing with one leg elevated. You may want to recruit a support person to help keep you steady.
  • Insert your index and middle finger and push your fingers deep inside as far as you can to reach your cervix. Be as gentle as possible to prevent bruising or complications.
  • Assess dilation. You're considered 1 centimeter dilated if one fingertip fits through your cervix, or 2 centimeters if you can fit two fingers. Beyond that, you can measure how far apart your fingers will spread and take it from there.

It's not easy, and not very dependable, so this might be one DIY worth skipping.

The red/purple line method

There are safer, more noninvasive ways to figure out how dilated you are. Since the result doesn't really predict what will happen next, going another route might not be so bad.

Enter the red/purple line. As weird as it sounds, a reddish or purplish line can appear in the natal cleft—aka butt crack—of some pregnant people as their cervix dilates and they come closer to giving birth. Some doulas prefer to track a pregnancy this way and avoid internal exams.

It's not 100% reliable, but it doesn't hurt to check. Simply have a partner or support person take a picture—yes, of your butt crack. The farther away from your anus and closer to your lower back the line appears, the closer to labor you might be.

Watch for Other Signs of Labor

If you see a marked increase in vaginal discharge, a "bloody show," or other signs of approaching labor, like your water breaking and intensifying contractions, the baby is on its way. You're definitely in labor if the contractions occur every five minutes and are so strong that others can tell what's happening just by looking at you! "By the time the baby comes, contractions are typically every two minutes or so, lasting a minute, and very intense," says Dr. Greenfield.

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