Birth Terminology Explained: Lightening

There is a lot of terminology thrown around when you enter the world of pregnancy, birth, postpartum, baby feeding, and early parenthood. In our “Terminology Explained” series, we help you break it down, bit by jargony bit. 

The term for today is lightening.

What is Lightening? 

Official Definition: “Lightening” is the term used to describe when a baby in utero drops (moves down) into the pelvis prior to giving birth. In lightening, baby’s head moves down lower into the pelvis. (A breech baby will also drop, but typically not as far down.)

When it happens near the last few weeks of pregnancy, the pregnant person may feel “lighter” as a result– that is, less pressure on the ribs and on the diaphragm. In exchange, the person could feel more pressure in the pelvis and on the bladder (hello, more bathroom trips!). Or, the person may not notice anything at all. Often, pregnant people are told by others something like, “Oh, it looks like the baby has dropped!” if the belly appears to hang lower than it did before. 

Lightening can occur as early as a few weeks before birth and as late as a few hours before birth. First-time pregnant people may experience earlier lightening, and people with subsequent pregnancies often experience lightening closer to labor and birth. Lightening is a sign that the body is preparing for birth, but not necessarily a sign that labor is imminent (unless of course, you’re in labor!). 

When you will hear/see the term used? Lightening is a description most often used by friends and family. Whether or not you have experienced lightening is not medically very important. Engagement, however, which is the stage when baby has fully engaged in the pelvis, is a term used to talk about your baby’s progress in labor. Lightening can be a sign that your body is working toward getting ready for labor and birth, but a lack of lightening is not a cause for concern. 

Why is it important/beneficial? Lightening can bring a physical sense of relief by removing some of the pressure baby puts on your diaphragm and ribcage. Some people also enjoy knowing that they’ve experienced lightening since it’s one step closer to meeting baby! While the presence or absence of lightening at the end of pregnancy — 37 weeks and beyond — is not critical, if you experience lightening before 37 weeks of pregnancy, notify your care provider as it could be a sign of premature labor. 

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