A few weeks before her due date, a mother-to-be may find that her baby bump seems lower and that it’s suddenly easier for her to breathe or to eat a meal without experiencing heartburn. The baby drop, also known as the lightning, happens when the baby shifts into a different position in preparation for labor. It signals that your delivery date is approaching, although it doesn’t exactly predict the date that labor might start.
To prepare for labor, the baby shifts into a head-down position, lower in the uterus, engaging within the pelvic bones. Once labor starts, the baby will continue to move lower. Doctors measure this progress, describing where the baby’s head is by using a range of -5 to +5, known as fetal station.
Many first-time mothers notice the shift a few weeks before the due date, but it doesn’t follow the same timeline for all mothers or even happen the same way during two different pregnancies. During a subsequent pregnancy, a mother might not notice the baby drop until a few hours before her labor or not notice it at all. Some women, especially those who already carry low, don’t notice any significant change.
Occasionally, the baby can drop as early as 32 weeks. Dropping that early is not necessarily a cause for concern, although, if it happens, you should consult your doctor to rule out preterm labor.
Some women find they are more comfortable before the baby drops while others feel better after. The downward shift in weight can provide relief for mothers who previously found it hard to breathe well or to eat meals without experiencing heartburn. The baby’s new position means there is less pressure on the diaphragm and the baby is not pressing against the mother’s stomach.
However, the shift in pressure may prompt new symptoms. With the baby’s descent, the pressure shifts to the bladder. As a result many women experience a more frequent need to urinate and an increased feeling of urgency. The pressure on the bladder makes leaks or accidents more likely, but it’s nothing to be embarrassed about. Most women experience some leaking or urinary incontinence while pregnant, because pregnancy stretches uterine and pelvic ligaments.
With weaker muscles and more pressure on the pelvic floor, it’s also possible to experience twinges of pain or feel uncomfortable. The pressure makes some women feel clumsy and waddle a little when they walk. Combine that with an altered sense of balance and a woman can be more accident prone during the last weeks of pregnancy.
Doing Kegel exercises both during pregnancy and after childbirth can help. These exercises strengthen the weakened pelvic floor muscles, which in turn help support the uterus, bladder, small intestine and rectum. Kegel exercises are important because weak pelvic floor muscles can lead to long-term urinary incontinence later on.
Some women find that a pregnancy belt, also known as a belly brace, can help them feel more comfortable during the last trimester and alleviate the lower back pain some women experience after the drop.
Braxton Hicks or pre-labor contractions can happen throughout a pregnancy but the pace may speed up during and after the baby drop. These contractions, which don’t further labor, do help the cervix dilate and that helps baby move into position. The cervix has to be completely thinned out before labor starts.
It would be nice if the baby drop accurately predicted exactly how many weeks were left of your pregnancy, but unfortunately, it’s not a reliable method of prediction.
While the baby drop is a perfectly normal part of labor, there are associated symptoms that should prompt a call to the doctor.
- Some pelvic pressure is normal but If you feel strong pelvic pressure, as if the baby is pushing down, and it happens before 37 weeks, it could be a sign of preterm labor. Be sure to check in with your doctor.
- While experiencing an urge to urinate frequently is normal during pregnancy, be sure to tell your doctor if urinating burns or feels painful, as you may have a urinary tract infection.
- If the baby drop is followed by consistent contractions and/or pain, call your doctor. You may be starting labor.