When you’re waddling through the last few weeks of pregnancy, there’ll probably come a day when you wake up, see your belly in the mirror, and think, “Huh… that looks way lower than it did yesterday!”

Between friends, family, and co-workers, this is usually known as the moment your baby “drops,” — but that’s not the technical term. Healthcare providers call this downward shift “engagement,” and it’s the stage of pregnancy when your baby’s head moves into your pelvis in preparation for birth.

Most people think that engagement is a sign that you’ll be going into labor soon — which explains why your co-workers gasped with glee when you walked into the office with a dropped baby bump. But the timing of engagement actually varies from person to person — and birth to birth.

Because engagement plays an important role in your baby’s birth, it’s helpful to know when it happens and what it means. Here’s the scoop.

You can think of your pelvis as a bridge between your baby and the outside world, at least when it comes to giving birth. During your pregnancy, the ligaments of your pelvis slowly loosen and stretch to make room for the moment when your baby will need to pass through on its way out of the birth canal.

As the ligaments loosen — and you get closer to the end of your pregnancy — your baby’s head will begin moving further downward into the pelvis. Once the widest part of your baby’s head has entered the pelvis, your baby’s head is officially engaged. Some people also refer to this process as “lightening.”

Engagement stages

The easiest way to understand engagement is by mapping out the different stages. OB-GYNs and midwives divide the stages up into five parts, or fifths, with each measuring how far into the pelvis your baby’s head has moved.

  • 5/5. This is the least engaged position; your baby’s head is sitting above the pelvic brim.
  • 4/5. Baby’s head is just beginning to enter into the pelvis, but only the very top or back of the head can be felt by your doctor or midwife.
  • 3/5. At this point, the widest part of your baby’s head has moved into the pelvic brim, and your baby is considered engaged.
  • 2/5. More of the front part of your baby’s head has passed over the pelvic brim.
  • 1/5. Your doctor or midwife may be able to feel most of your baby’s head.
  • 0/5. Your doctor or midwife may be able to feel most of your baby’s entire head, front, and back.

Typically, once your baby is engaged, your provider takes that as a sign that your body is physically capable of delivering the baby. (That’s not to say there won’t be a need for interventions, like a cesarean delivery, just that there’s nothing obstructing your baby’s path, like a too-large head or placenta previa.)

FYI, if your baby is breech, their feet, buttocks, or more rarely, their shoulders, will engage instead of their head — but that doesn’t mean they can’t turn around the right way! There’s still time for that.

Every pregnancy is different, and engagement doesn’t follow a specific schedule. In first pregnancies, however, it usually happens several weeks before birth — anywhere between 34 weeks and 38 weeks gestation.

In subsequent pregnancies, your baby’s head may not engage until your labor starts. Both scenarios are normal, and while it might seem like you wake up one day to a perfectly engaged baby in your newly lowered belly, it’s usually a process that happens slowly over time.

If you’re nearing the end of your pregnancy, and your baby’s head hasn’t engaged yet, you haven’t done anything wrong! Your baby may be in a nonpreferred position, like posterior-facing (back to back) or breech.

Or there may be an anatomical issue with your placenta, uterus, or pelvis that means your baby won’t be able to fully engage without some assistance. Or, most likely, nothing is wrong at all.

Unless you have an ultrasound machine (or a midwife or OB-GYN!) at home, you won’t be able to tell on a day-to-day basis how far along your baby is in their engagement. But there are a few signs you can watch for that usually mean The Big Move is happening.

  • That very full, out-of-breath feeling you’ve had since the beginning of the third trimester? It’s mostly gone now — baby lowering into your pelvis means you have more room to breathe.
  • It’s harder to walk around comfortably or for long periods of time. (In other words, your waddling just got a whole lot less graceful.)
  • You need to use the bathroom more often, because of increased pressure on your bladder.
  • You may feel more discomfort, sharp or dull, around your cervix, or experience back pain.
  • You may feel constipated, have trouble producing bowel movements, or gain some unpleasant hemorrhoids because of the increased pressure in your pelvis and extremities.
  • Your vaginal mucus discharge may increase as the pressure around your pelvis helps to thin your cervix.
  • Finally, your bump may literally look lower when you check yourself out in the mirror. Or, you may notice your clothing suddenly fitting differently — your waistband is tighter, or your maternity tops no longer drape fully over the widest part of your belly.

We’re going to bust this myth for you right now: Engagement has no relationship to the timing of your labor and delivery. Your baby could engage weeks before you finally go into labor, especially if it’s your first baby.

If it’s not your first baby, engagement could be a sign that you’ll be going into labor soon or are already in early labor. Most women don’t experience engagement with subsequent babies until labor contractions begin, pushing the baby further into the birth canal.

Either way, engagement doesn’t cause labor to start. It may be a sign that things are firing up, but engagement doesn’t make you go into labor any sooner (or later) than you already were.

Some elements of your baby’s engagement will be completely out of your control, unfortunately. But in other cases, you may be able to coax baby along on their way into your pelvis. You can encourage engagement by:

  • staying physically active with walking, swimming, low-impact exercise, or prenatal yoga
  • sitting on a birthing ball (ask your provider for tips on motions that promote engaging)
  • visiting a chiropractor (with permission from your healthcare provider) to relax and realign your pelvic area
  • gently stretching your body every day
  • sitting in a tailor-style position a few times per day (this is like sitting cross-legged on the floor, but you don’t cross your legs — instead, you place the bottoms of your feet together)
  • maintaining good posture whenever you’re sitting down — try to sit up straight or lean slightly forward, rather than reclining back

We can’t tell you exactly when your baby will engage, but we can tell you that — like most other things in pregnancy, labor, and birth — there isn’t much you can do to speed up or slow down the process. Babies have minds of their own!

But you can usually tell if and when your baby’s head has engaged. If you’re coming to the end of your pregnancy (especially if it’s your first), and you still don’t think baby has moved into position, talk to your healthcare provider.