Cervical Effacement: What You Need to Know
What is Cervical Effacement?
February 26, 2019

What is Cervical Effacement?

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What is Cervical Effacement?.
What is Cervical Effacement?

If your baby’s going to make their way down the birth canal (aka your lady parts) for a vaginal birth, some important changes to your cervix need to happen first. Namely, dilation and effacement.

You might know what dilation is—it’s the widening or opening of the cervix, so baby’s head (and whole body) can slide right through. But here’s the deal on the more elusive effacement.

What is Effacement?

Effacement is the process of the cervix thinning out and stretching to prep for birth. As you may know from childbirth class, the cervix is the gateway between the uterus and the vagina. It needs to soften, thin (efface) and dilate (open), to allow the baby to enter the birth canal. The whole process is called cervical ripening.

Dilation and Effacement: What’s the Difference?

Effacement: Think of effacement as the cervix getting shorter and thinner. It starts out about three or four centimeters long. As your baby’s head pushes down on the cervix, it’ll begin to efface, getting shorter and thinning out. If your OB or midwife is tracking it, they will tell you how effaced you are in percentages. So if you’re 50% effaced, that means it’s thinned halfway. When you’re 100% effaced, the cervix will be paper-thin.

Dilation: Think of dilation as the cervix opening up to let the baby’s head pass through. For all you geometry lovers, this would be the diameter, measured in centimeters. Your cervix will go from completely closed (0 centimeters) to about 3 centimeters, which is about when active labor starts. Then, it’s all about getting to that magic number: 10. At 10 centimeters, you’ll be fully dilated and most likely ready for the pushing stage of labor.

Cervical Effacement Symptoms

One of the most common questions we hear from first-time moms is: can you feel dilation or effacement as it’s happening? And the answer is probably not—at least not definitively. But you might notice a few signs your cervix is doing the ripening thing.

Cervical effacement symptoms can include:

  • Pelvic discomfort: Some women swear they feel little twinges or sensations down there at the same their cervix is changing. Once your baby’s head descends into your pelvis, you may feel that head pushing down on the cervix, which helps cause effacement and can be more than a little uncomfortable.
  • Contractions: Also, you may have Braxton Hicks contractions, and later, labor contractions, both of which are thought to help bring on dilation and effacement.
  • Mucus plug: Losing the glob of mucus that’s been sealing off the cervix might come as a bit of a shock. (What is that goo in my undies?!) But it’s totally normal, and a definite sign the cervix is changing.
  • Bloody show: Cervical changes can also cause some capillaries around the cervix to rupture and cause a bit of spotting or streaks of blood, known as the bloody show—either arriving with the mucus plug or separately.

How to Check Cervix Dilation and Effacement

How to check if you have an effaced cervix? Your doctor will likely check for you at your appointments as you near your due date. Wearing a sterile glove, they’ll insert fingers into the vagina and feel the cervix to gauge dilation and effacement.

It is possible to check your own cervix for dilation and effacement, though it might be tricky to reach if you’re not in labor yet, and some women just don’t feel comfortable doing it. Plus, you don’t need to keep super close tabs on effacement and dilation. It’s more essential to keep a lookout for other signs of labor: regular contractions and water breaking are the two biggies.

Many pregnant women want to know what to do if they’re effaced but not dilated—but really there’s nothing “to do.” It’s normal for a cervix to start effacement before it starts dilating. And—especially if this is your first birth—the process may take up to a few weeks. It’s tough, but try to be patient!

Some women try to jumpstart labor naturally using techniques such as walking, squatting, having sex or getting acupuncture. You’ll want to get an OK from your doc before trying any induction technique, and it might not help, but you can certainly try.

Dilation and Effacement Chart

Still not totally picturing effacement and dilation? Here’s a chart that can help.


Now, here’s hoping you understand what effacement means! Once your cervix is effaced and dilated you’ll be on your way to saying hello to your baby.

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