Lightening or quickening refers to the moment when the fetus drops, or shifts lower in the womb. It is often called “coming down” or “dropping.” Engagement, where the baby engages with the cervix, is also used to describe this moment. It can sometimes be mistaken for labor contractions.
The term lightening originated from the sensation of lightness or alleviation that some women experience when the fetus migrates from their rib cage to their pelvic region. It allows certain women to breathe more easily and deeply, which may help with heartburn.
When Does It Happen?
There is some debate over when exactly lightening occurs. Some people say it happens about two weeks before birth, others say it’s when the baby drops 2 cm below the navel, but for some women, the baby’s descent is barely noticeable. For a multipara, lightening usually happens during the active phase of labor, as the cervix begins to dilate and the baby moves down in the birth canal. It is preceded by effacement or the thinning of the cervix.
The following are the series of changes that occur after lightening:
– Passing of the mucus plug
– Irregular contractions
– Dilation of the cervix
– Rupture of membranes
For most women, lightening means the end of their pregnancy is near. Once the baby has dropped, labor usually progresses more quickly and smoothly. The cervix continues to thin and dilate, and more quickly, and contractions are more effective in pushing the baby out.
This image shows how often the term ‘Lightening’ is used in relation to other, similar birth terms:
What if lightening does not happen?
When the baby does not descend or engage prior to labor, it is usually due to a malpresentation which means that the baby is in a position other than head-first, which can make delivery more difficult. It could also be because the cervix has not dilated, or the baby is large for its gestational age. Alternatively, the baby’s head may be stuck in a position where it is difficult to deliver naturally. In these situations, medical intervention is often required.
There are natural ways to encourage lightening such as walking, squats, and using pelvic tilts, but if there is any doubt about the baby’s position, it is best to consult with a healthcare professional.
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