What It Means When a Baby "Drops"

Also called lightening, it's one step in the beginning of labor

Doctor using stethoscope on pregnant patients stomach
Your Baby's Station. Caiaimage/Agnieszka Wozniak / Getty Images

The vocabulary of childbirth can seem a bit strange—and even a little violent: Mucus plug. Waters breaking. Crowning. Cutting the cord. The term "baby dropping" falls into this category, as it may bring to mind an image of a newborn falling headfirst from the birth canal. Of course, that's not at all what happens when a baby drops, although this event does tend to signal the onset of labor and delivery.

If you're pregnant and have been told your baby has dropped (which sometimes is called lightening) or you've heard of this phenomenon and wonder what it really means, read on to learn precisely what happens and why, as well as what to expect when your own little one drops.

Getting Into Position

A baby's position in the womb is defined as being at a particular fetal station—a measurement of where he is in relation to certain areas of the pelvis. Each fetal station is defined in negative or positive numbers that correspond to the baby's position in the birth canal. The difference between numbers is equivalent to centimeters—in other words, moving from +1 to +2 means moving about a centimeter. Doctors and midwives usually used a fetal station scale containing 11 specific positions. Here are five of them:

-5 station. The baby is "floating" in the womb—able to move freely and even flip from heads-up to heads-down and vice-versa.

-3 station. The baby has settled into a heads-down position—usually within weeks 32 to 36 (although it can happen as late as just as labor is beginning)—with the top of the head just above the pelvic bone.

0 station. The baby has descended to the point that the head has reached the bottom of the pelvis. This is the point at which the baby is said to have dropped and is fully engaged. is s when the head is at the bottom of the pelvis, also known as being fully engaged.

+3 station. The point in labor at which the baby's head is beginning to emerge from the birth canal.

+5 station. The baby's head is crowning, meaning it's visible.

It's at 0 station, when a baby's head is fully engaged in the pelvis, that the baby is said to have dropped. You can't predict when this will happen, although if this is your first pregnancy lightening probably will occur two to four weeks before you go into labor. if it's not your first pregnancy, your baby may wait until labor begins to start his descent into the birth canal.

What It Feels Like

The word "drop" is kind of misleading: It suggests a sudden downward movement, but in fact a baby dropping typically is a gradual process. It's unlikely you'll feel your baby drop, but you will notice any or all of various signs that it has happened. These include:

  • Easier breathing. When a baby moves downward, it creates more room for the lungs to expand, so you may notice that you can breathe more freely.
  • Pressure on your pelvis. When the baby drops, his head will rest more heavily on top of the cervix and will take up more space in the lower part of the birth canal. It may feel as if there's a bowling bowl between your legs and even cause you to walk oddly.
  • The need to pee more often. The pressure of the baby's head in the pelvis can affect the bladder, causing you to feel as if you need to urinate a lot.
  • The ability to eat more at one sitting. While high up in your uterus your baby crowded your stomach, so you may have noticed that you felt full pretty quickly. When your baby drops there will be more room for your stomach to fill up with food.
  • Less heartburn. Pressure on the stomach also causes a common symptom pregnancy—heartburn. Minus the pressure, you may notcie you're less likely to get heartburn (if that's been an issue for you).
  • Pelvic pain. This is caused by pressure on a lot of ligaments in the pelvis.
  • Increased discharge. The weight of the baby on the cervix may cause more mucus to be expelled from the vagina. This is sometimes experienced as a gob of discharge called the mucus plug.
  • Your belly hangs lower. It's often very easy to tell if a baby has dropped: Besides visibly looking as if you're carrying lower, you may notice that there's more space between your breasts and the top of your abdomen.
  • More Braxton-Hicks contractions. These may be stimulated by the pressure of the baby's head on the cervix.
  • Increased pain in the pelvis. This simply is due to the shift in pressure on ligaments and nerves in the lower pelvis.

If Your Baby Doesn't Drop

Don't worry—he will. Again, it could happen several weeks before you go into labor or not until labor begins. If you go into labor before lightening occurs you may have a longer labor since it will take some time for your body to move your baby into position.

There are some things you can do to try to help your baby to drop. Check with your doctor before you try any of these:

  • Walking. Being upright and moving will bring about the combination of gravity and gentle rocking of the baby in your uterus which can help lead to dropping
  • Squats. These may widen your pelvis so that your baby can become engaged there. Do squats while holding onto a sturdy chair since your balance may be a bit off.
  • Pelvic Opening Exercise. Sit with your legs open wide and lean forward to move the weight from your belly toward your pelvis. Don't fold your torso over your legs or go further than your range of motion.

Finally, trust that your body knows what to do when it comes to preparing for childbirth. No two pregnancies are the same, so rather than become concerned if you think your baby should have dropped and hasn't based on generalities, talk to your obstetrician or midwife for reassurance.

View Article Sources
  • Cleveland Clinic. Fetal Positions for Birth. Sept 11, 2014. https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/9677-fetal-positions-for-birth