Cervical Effacement And Dilation Explained: Definition, Symptoms, & More

Is Labor Near? Everything To Know About Cervical Effacement (And Dilation, Too)

November 3, 2020 Updated March 1, 2021

Black doctor giving pregnant patient ultrasound
Ariel Skelley/Getty Images

By the time you reach your third trimester, you may be convinced that you’re experiencing the longest pregnancy in history. And while that’s probably not true, that homestretch can feel agonizingly long. Here’s the thing, though: Just as you’re getting ready for your little nugget, your body is preparing for labor and delivery so you can have that precious baby. Enter, cervical effacement (and its cousin, dilation).

You’re probably familiar with some of the signs you can expect closer to birthing your babe, like Braxton Hicks contractions and more frequent urination. What you’re probably fuzzier about is effacement — and understandably so, since you can’t necessarily see it or feel it. So, let’s take a look at the definition of effacement, how it’s measured, and more.

What is the meaning of cervical effacement?

Time for a quick anatomy refresher! Your cervix is the long, narrow end of the lower uterus that connects the uterine cavity to the vagina. It, along with your vagina, is basically the gatekeeper between your baby and the outside world. Outside of pregnancy, your cervix is typically closed and firm. It’s also elongated, measuring around 3.5 to 4 centimeters. However, when early labor begins and contractions kick in, your cervix starts to thin out. It gradually becomes softer and shorter. Per the Mayo Clinic, that process is known as effacement.

What does 70 percent effaced mean?

Effacement is measured in percentages. Once you hit 100 percent effaced, your cervix has thinned out enough for childbirth. So, if your obstetrician tells you you’re “70 effaced” or “70 percent effaced,” it means you’re about three-quarters of the way to being ready for delivery.

What does 80 percent effaced mean?

Similarly, if you’re 80 percent effaced, it means you’re 80 percent of the way to being completely effaced. Only 20 percent more to go, Mama!

What is effacement vs. dilation?

You may be wondering why you almost always hear “dilation” when there’s a discussion of “effacement.” Well, it’s because they’re basically a tag team when it comes to preparing your cervix to allow a baby through. Once your cervix softens, it still has to open, right? That part is known as cervical dilation. While effacement is measured in percentages up to 100, dilation is described in centimeters from zero to 10 — with 10 being completely dilated. When you’re 100 percent effaced and dilated to 10, it’s time for baby to come on down (*cue the Price Is Right voice*).

What are the symptoms of cervical dilation?

If you’re experiencing cervical effacement, cervical dilation is not that far behind. It’s important to pay attention to your body during this time, and understanding the signs of dilation will give you enough time to get where you need to be for the birth of your baby (whether that be a home birth or hospital — do you, mama).

Lightning Vagina

No, this is not a superhero, but doesn’t it sound like one? A lighting vagina is when you feel sharp pain in the vagina. This happens because your baby’s head is cruising into your pelvis. Their cute little head rests on your nerves, which is what causes the pain.

Backache and Cramping

You’re pregnant and you literally ache everywhere, so why is this symptom any different than a regular pregnant Tuesday? Well, when the cramping is very low (like just above your pubic bone), this is a sign it’s time.

What does cervical effacement feel like?

You don’t normally feel effacement, per se. Having said that, some people do report experiencing irregular, uncomfortable contractions that are stronger than Braxton Hicks but not as strong as labor contractions. However, there are a few possible signs and symptoms of effacement you may notice:

Loss of Mucus Plug

Throughout your pregnancy, your cervix has been effectively sealed up by a plug of mucus. As your body begins to prepare for labor, your cervix effaces to the point that the mucus plug comes loose. When it passes out of the vagina, it’s called your “show.” If it’s tinged with blood (which is normal!), it’s called your “bloody show.” The bloody show may come out at a different time than the rest of your mucus plug, though.

Uptick in Discharge

Even if you don’t notice your show, you probably will notice that there’s a whole lot more happening down there. As your cervix thins, expect to see lots o’ vaginal discharge.

The “Drop”

Now that your cervix is thinning out, baby may start making some moves. Many women report feeling as though baby has dropped lower into the pelvis in preparation for birth. Even if you can’t pinpoint that precise feeling, you may notice a general sense of increased pelvic discomfort as baby’s head pushes down on the cervix.

How long after effacement does labor begin?

We can’t give you a definitive timeline, seeing as every woman and every pregnancy is different. But starting around your ninth month of pregnancy, your health care provider will start looking for clues that could help narrow down the possible timeframe. In addition to palpating your abdomen, this includes checking your cervix to see how effaced you are.

While you can technically check your own cervix for effacement, many women don’t feel comfortable doing so. Plus, it’s probably best to leave it to your practitioner, right?

Can you efface your cervix faster?

Since a fully effaced cervix is necessary for delivery, you may want to try to speed things along. First and foremost, you should always consult with your obstetrician or health care provider before trying any potential “ripening” methods, which include:

  • Paralleling your feet: Bringing your toes parallel may separate the sitz bones, which open up the pelvis. As this happens, it coaxes baby into the proper position and your cervix to efface more.
  • Using a birthing ball: Another way to open your pelvis and encourage effacement is to sit, rock, bounce, and/or rotate your hips on a birthing ball.
  • Getting it on: You had to know this was, ahem, coming. The gist here is that semen contains prostaglandins, which help soften the cervix. Bonus: An orgasm causes uterine contractions, which also contribute to effacement. So, get your pregnancy sex on if you’re in the mood.
  • Relaxation: In this case, laughter really is the best medicine. Going into labor can be a little scary, but keeping your stress in check can speed up the dilation. Now is the time to be surrounded by those you love and who make you smile. Yes, we give you full permission to kick your sassy, anxiety-spiking sister out of the room! Tell jokes or reminisce about funny events. You could even pop in a movie, watch your favorite TikToks, or listen to a stand-up comedy podcast. Labor is stressful enough, so try to have a laugh and chill out.
  • Nipple stimulation: Here’s another way getting frisky can help. It’s not a sure-fire method (and should not be done if you have a high-risk pregnancy), but it helps you release oxytocin — which causes contractions. Although it isn’t directly related to dilation, it can kick start labor.
  • Castor oil: Drink about one to two ounces of castor oil. This releases prostaglandin, which can soften your cervix. Be sure not to drink too much.
  • Massages: Sometimes a good deep tissue massage can raise your oxytocin levels, which can kick start your labor contractions. Just make sure you get your doctor’s approval first.
  • Evening primrose oil: This herb is known for activating your prostaglandins, which also softens the cervix. 

In some cases, your cervix may not efface fully, but your health care provider has reason to believe it’s in the best interest of you and baby to move things along. At that point, they might decide to induce labor.