Your cervix is fully dilated when it has stretched open to the maximum. This provides the opening through which your child will pass. During the late stages of dilation, you may hear the doctor say that the baby's crowning—the baby's head is visible at the cervical opening.
Think of it this way: You have been carrying this fetus for nine months. It now weighs about seven pounds or more, and your body needs to provide an opening large enough for this baby to slide through when the time comes for its permanent eviction. How your body does this is truly miraculous. It happens so naturally that you can feel unimportant in the scheme of things. When your baby is ready to be born, your body gets to work, and it is so well designed for the task that you can set your self and ego aside and just let your body take over.
Contractions, or labor pains, serve a very important purpose. Each contraction opens the cervix, one step at a time. When the cervix is fully dilated, the baby's head normally crowns, and it is time for him or her to be born. (Crowning, of course, only occurs when the baby is positioned normally for birth—traveling head first into the cervical opening.)
But all the clinical information in the world can't really capture the experience of labor. Sometimes, it helps to hear about the real-life experience of others. Here are a few of my own encounters with labor:
Going Natural, Part I
My second child was born without benefit of even minimal anesthesia. I was in my total earth mother phase back then, and was really ready to go back to nature—I was even on the verge of choosing a home birth. In the end, however, I compromised with my doctor on a hospital birthing room and he supported my decision to go natural.
I am not a masochist by any means and I do not like labor pain. During this birth, I was in active “holy-Toledo-it-hurts” labor for three hours. It was certainly an easier overall experience than the birth of my first child had been, but it was also more difficult. I still contemplated husband-homicide.
Birthing “Big Head”
The biggest part of the problem was that this child, my son, had a very big head. So, while my labor in delivering him was shorter (11 hours shorter!) it was far more memorable. Sort of like giving birth to a pumpkin.
Now, when you're dealing with something like this, you go for whatever relief you can get—and if you're not taking medication, you find yourself some alternatives.
I remember grabbing my husband's hand and squeezing it during contractions. And when he had to leave the room, I grabbed my doctor's hand instead. It seemed like a good idea at the time, but I later learned that it is actually better not to squeeze someone's hand—squeezing makes you tense up, while relaxing actually makes the contraction less painful.