Does your pregnant belly look like a basketball or does your belly slope like the side of a mountain? Is your baby up in your ribs or down on your bladder? No matter what your belly looks like or where you baby sits in your uterus, you are bound to hear daily comments of passersby about the way your pregnant belly looks. “You have dropped”…”You haven’t dropped yet!” But what does this all mean and when does baby drop in preparation for labor?

In this article we’ll unpack some of the mysteries behind when and why ‘baby’s drop,’ covering these questions and more:

What Does It Mean When Baby Drops?

This part of pregnancy is called ‘lightening.’ As pregnancy advances, the hormones prostaglandins and relaxin, amongst others, increase in your body. The increase of these hormones contributes to the softening of the pelvic floor and ripening of the cervix. It is this softening that allows baby to descend, or drop, lower in the pelvis. When this happens, it’s considered a signal that your body is preparing for labor, but it is not necessarily a sign of early labor. (More specifics on this below.)

When Does Baby Drop?

Wouldn’t it be nice if there was an easy answer to this? But the truth is: Every woman is different. The baby can drop as early as a few weeks before labor starts or a few hours before labor starts …or maybe not even until you are in labor! There is no set time that lightening happens, but it is usually a gradual process that starts around 36-38 weeks.

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Why Does Lightening Happen at Different Times?

Let’s take a look at some of the reasons why the timing of the drop can be so variable from woman to woman:

First time mom

In first-time moms, the baby tends to drop earlier. Why? Both mom’s body and baby need time to prepare for labor. In a sense, first babies are “trailblazers.” And when a woman’s body has never gone through all of the stages of pregnancy and labor, the softening of the pelvic floor and ligaments that allow the baby to descend into the pelvis can take time to loosen up and allow for this process to happen.

Experienced mom

For the subsequent pregnancies, lightening usually happens later—possibly even as late as when a woman is in labor. The trail has already been blazed by the first baby, and the abdominal muscles are more lax. Of course, every body’s different, and this isn’t the case for everyone.

Very strong pelvic floor

A strong pelvic floor is advantageous in that it helps women avoid urine leakage and reduces the chance of back and pelvic floor pain as pregnancy advances. An overly toned pelvic floor can also be so tense and strong that it can hold the baby up for much longer.

Diastasis Recti

Diastasis recti is a condition where the abdominal muscles widen in the center, creating a gap between the left and right side of your abdominal muscles, allowing the uterus, the bowels, and other internal organs to hang forward. How does this affect the timing of your baby dropping into the pelvis? As stated above, the more lax your muscles are, the more likely it is that baby will settle into your pelvis earlier.

Unbalanced pelvis

If the pelvis is imbalanced due to muscles or ligaments being tighter on one side or the other, or from injury or poor posture, baby may have trouble dropping into the pelvis. An unbalanced pelvis can also affect how the baby sits in your uterus. Fortunately, there are ways to help balance your uterus in pregnancy. Consider a visit to a pregnancy-safe chiropractor and try these great exercises and stretches to help keep the balance.

Signs Baby Has Dropped

For some women, lightening is sudden and noticeable; for others, it is a gentle, gradual process. Either way, you’re sure to notice a few of the following signs that your baby has dropped:

Less trouble breathing

When baby drops into the pelvis, it takes some pressure off of the diaphragm and lungs, making it easier to breathe deeply.

More room for food

Before lightening occurs, many women find that their eyes are bigger than their stomachs, especially when there is a growing baby competing for space in the belly. But as the baby drops down and away from the stomach, your stomach won’t be quite as cramped.

Less heartburn

By the third trimester, baby is really compressing upwards onto all of your digestive organs and diaphragm, making it easier for stomach contents to pass back up into the esophagus. But as baby drops into the pelvis, taking pressure off of the stomach, you will likely experience less frequent and less intense bouts of heartburn.

More frequent trips to the bathroom

This is one of the many joys women experience at the end of pregnancy as the baby settles into the pelvis and puts added pressure on the bladder. Some woman will also leak urine during this stage—consider wearing a panty liner or carrying a change of undies in your purse.

Increased pelvic sensations

Towards the end of pregnancy, as the ligaments and muscles connected to the pelvic floor start to soften, some women feel increased sensations and sometimes pain in this area, a sensation often referred to as lightning crotch. There is a ligament at the center of the pubic bone, known as the symphysis pubis that tends to hurt as it stretches, especially with quick movements. And once the head has settled into the pelvis, it can put pressure on nerves, causing additional discomfort. 

Increased pregnancy discharge

You may start to see an increase in discharge as the head settles into the pelvis and starts to put more pressure on your cervix. This pressure helps further soften the cervix in preparation for labor. As the cervix softens and opens, this allows the mucus plug to loosen and start to release.

Is There a Way to Confirm That Baby Dropped?

Perhaps you’ve had a visit with your doctor or midwife and they have used more technical terms, such as assigning a number to the ‘station’ of your baby. What’s this all about? The concept of fetal station has been around for almost a century, but was later redefined and brought into use by the American College Of Obstetrics (ACOG) in 1988. It is a classification system that divides the pelvis into a hypothetical plane, above and below the mid-pelvis.

There are five stations below the mid-pelvis and 5 stations above the mid-pelvis—each station denotes a centimeter.

  • If your baby is “high,” your baby is still above the mid-pelvis and could be classified as -1, -2, -3,-4,-5, depending on how high. For reference: during pregnancy, your baby is floating in amniotic fluid and is usually at a -5.
  • If your baby is “low” or has “dropped” during pregnancy, it doesn’t mean that you’re in labor. Dropping during pregnancy can indicate a shift from -5 down to a -3, for example. That’s because a -3 station does seem a lot lower when compared to a -5, but it’s still not as low as baby needs to be.
  • If your baby drops during labor, this indicates that your baby your baby is below mid-pelvis and could be classified as +1, +2,+3, +4, +5, depending on how low. (Note: If your baby is +3 that means s/he is crowning!)
  • If your baby is level to your mid-pelvis, baby is at 0, or  ‘engaged in the pelvis.’
Lightening When Does Baby Drop Is It a Sign of Labor – Pregnancy Station – pregnancy post by Mama Natural

What to Do Once Baby Drops

I wish I could tell you that lightening is a sure sign of labor, but it just isn’t.

Labor could be just hours hours away—or it could be weeks away.

Try to enjoy that fact that you have a little more breathing room and more space for eating. If you’re uncomfortable, wearing a belly band for a few hours a day can help. It also helps to recite pregnancy affirmations, like ”My baby has plenty of space and knows just where it needs to be.” Every Mama is different, every baby is different. Enjoy the rest of your pregnancy, no matter the length, and know your baby will be here before you know it!

How About You?

When did your baby drop? Share your experience in the comments below.