Baby dropping is when a baby's head moves lower down into the pelvis ready for labor. It usually happens towards the end of the third trimester of pregnancy.
Also called lightening, baby dropping is a sign that a baby is nearly ready to be born. Before dropping, the baby may rotate, so the back of its head is toward the front of the tummy, head facing down. Then, the baby may drop down into the pelvis.
When the baby has settled in the pelvis, doctors describe it as engaged. This means it is ready for birth.
Precisely when it happens is different for every woman. There is no set day or week that women should expect their baby to drop.
For some women, baby dropping happens just as labor starts or a few hours before. For other women, it may happen a few weeks before labor begins.
Baby dropping might happen closer to labor for women who have had babies before. This is because their body has been through labor before, so their pelvis may need less time to adjust to the process.
Women who are pregnant for the first time may find that baby dropping occurs some days or weeks before labor. This may be because their pelvic muscles need to adjust to the birthing position before labor can begin.
If a woman thinks her baby has dropped, she should speak to a doctor. The doctor can check the position of the baby, which helps them estimate when labor may begin.
Some women may feel baby dropping as a sudden, noticeable movement. Others may not notice it happening at all.
Some women may notice that their abdomen feels lighter after the baby has dropped. This might be because the baby is positioned lower in the pelvis, leaving more room in her middle.
This feeling of increased space in the abdomen is why baby dropping is also called lightening.
Lightening may seem an inappropriate term for some. Baby dropping sometimes makes women feel like they are carrying a bowling ball between their legs.
Every woman's experience of baby dropping is different.
The following signs suggest a baby may have dropped:
1. Lower belly
A woman's pregnancy bump may look like it is sitting lower when the baby drops.
2. Pelvic pressure pain
As the baby drops into the pelvis, the pressure in this area may increase.
This may cause a woman to feel like she is waddling when she walks.
3. Pelvic pain
When the baby drops, some women may experience flashes of pelvic pain. This may be due to the baby's head pushing against ligaments in the pelvis.
4. Easier breathing
There is less pressure on the diaphragm once the baby has dropped. This may make breathing easier.
After the baby drops, its head may put pressure on the nerves in the pelvis and rectum. This pressure may cause hemorrhoids.
6. More discharge
Baby dropping increases pressure on the cervix. This causes it to lose the mucus plug that sits at the top of the cervix until the end of pregnancy. It is there to stop bacteria from entering the uterus.
After baby dropping, the mucus plug may exit the vagina as jelly or yolk-like discharge.
7. Frequent need to urinate
When the baby sits lower in the pelvis, its head may put pressure on the bladder. This may make a woman need to urinate often.
8. Back pain
Baby dropping may put additional pressure on the muscles in the lower back. This may cause back pain.
9. Feeling hungrier
When the baby drops, it may reduce pressure on the stomach. This may ease heartburn and increase hunger.
If a woman thinks her baby has dropped, she should see the doctor. The doctor can work out what position the baby is in using a fetal stations scale. Some doctors use a three-point scale; others use a five-point scale.
The five-point scale is more traditional and more widely used. A 2015 article describes it as a system which divides the pelvis above and below the ischial spines into fifths.
The ischial spines are on the pelvis. When the baby drops ready for labor, its head is level with the ischial spines.
The five-point scale measures from -5 to +5. Each step forward on the scale means the baby is a centimeter closer to being born.
Before the baby drops, a woman may be at station -5. When the baby drops (and is engaged) a woman may be at station zero. When the baby crowns (fills the vagina) a woman may be at station +5.
According to a 2014 study, 95 percent of women have a station of zero or lower when fully dilated.
To estimate which station a woman is at, the doctor examines a woman's vagina and feels for the baby's head.
If a woman's due date is imminent, but her baby is yet to drop, she can try specific activities to encourage the baby to descend.
- sitting on a birthing ball
- pelvic tilts
These activities all help to open the hips and stretch the pelvic muscles. This may encourage the baby to drop down into the pelvis.
It is normal to experience some pelvic pain after the baby drops. That said, some types of pelvic pain may need investigating.
Speak to the doctor if pelvic pain is constant or regular. Or if it is accompanied by:
- loss of fluids
Baby dropping typically happens towards the end of pregnancy. It may occur as labor starts, hours before, or sometimes a few weeks before. It is more likely to happen weeks before labor for women who are pregnant for the first time.
Baby dropping may feel like a sudden, noticeable movement for some women, while others may not feel it happening. Baby dropping, or lightening, may make it easier to breathe and increase appetite. This is because there is more space in the abdomen and less pressure on organs.
When the baby drops, pressure on the pelvis may cause some pain. If the pain is continuous or regular, it is a good idea to speak to a doctor.