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One of the things a lot of women get used to during pregnancy and birth is tons of strangers sticking their fingers in their vagina for cervical checks. It’s invasive, and often embarrassing, but we grin and bear it as a necessary evil.
Thing is, it’s not necessary. Not in the slightest, and believe it or not, something so simple as just checking your cervix can cause a whole slew of problems, from infection to induction and even potentially a c-section.
And most of the time, this check means absolutely, positively NOTHING.
During pregnancy, often they’ll do checks to see that your cervix is “long enough,” but it’s totally unnecessary unless there’s actually a concern, like if you have unusual bleeding or cramping. What it can do is irritate your cervix, and even introduce bacteria into your vagina (even with gloves), which can lead to a potentially serious infection. In this case, often a vaginal ultrasound will give much more information.
The US Public Health Service recommends no routine cervical exams until 41 weeks of pregnancy, yet a lot of practices not only check you early in your pregnancy, but start checking at every single appointment in the third trimester. And why? To just see if you’re dilating or effacing … no other reason.
A woman can walk around dilated to a four or five for over a month. A woman can also be completely closed and have a baby a few hours later. The dilation and effacement don’t always determine labor. The only time it’s an issue is if your cervix opens and needs to be closed until the baby is viable — an issue completely unrelated to third trimester checks.
If you are not quite full term and hear you’re dilated, it can be scary, making you fear that every Braxton-Hicks contraction is the real thing. If you aren’t dilated at your due date, you may even start worrying your body isn’t working, so you agree to inductions, which have serious risks for complications and increased risk for c-sections. It can all be scary and confusing.
Unless you have serious concerns, such as bleeding or what seems like premature labor, you have absolutely no reason to open your legs to a doctor.
There are some things midwives look for that can help you know if you’re really getting close to labor, as sarahvine explains:
1. Sounds. Often, midwives will judge where a woman is in labor by talking to her on the phone. Your ability to speak or not speak, breathe or not, during speech can be a good indication of how strong your contractions really are. The closer women get to delivery, the less they speak, and the more effort it takes.
2. Smell. Apparently there is a distinct smell as the cervix is fully opened and the body prepares for birth.
3. Irrationality. When women get close to transition or are in transition (getting really close to birth), often this is the period of doubt. This is the place where women start saying, “I can’t do it!” or “I need the drugs!” This is where women need the most support, and reminders that self-doubt is a sign of transition and ALSO means it’s almost over. Get her through this, and she’s good to go.
4. Feel. The uterus undergoes major changes during labor, and as it’s getting close, sarahvine says you can judge dilation by feeling the top of your uterus through your stomach:
During a contraction, at the beginning of labor, check how many fingers you can fit between the fundus (top of your bump) and the bra line — you will be able to fit 5 fingers. As the top of the fundus rises higher during labor, you will fit fewer and fewer fingers. When you can fit 3 fingers, I usually tell mothers they can think about going into hospital as they will find they are around 5cm dilated. At 1 finger, you are fully dilated.
There are even more ways that women have suggested you can find out, but the point is, you never need someone’s hands up there in a normal pregnancy or birth, and should really question the reasons your doctor has if they suggest it. If the reason is “We need to see if you’re dilated,” don’t be afraid to say, “Why?”