Being pregnant means coming across a whole load of strange-sounding new vocab, from trimesters and mucus plugs to fundal heights and Braxton Hicks. But perhaps the term that's most confusing of all is 'engaged' – as in "Your baby's head has engaged." What on earth does it mean? And why is it often followed by a measurement in fifths, such as 2/5 or 3/5 or 4/5?


"Engagement simply means your baby's head (or bottom, in some cases) has moved down into your pelvis in preparation for birth," says Midwife Pip, a practising NHS midwife and expert antenatal and postnatal educator. "Other, more outdated, terms for engagement that you might still hear are 'lightening' or 'dropping'."

Here, with the expert help of Midwife Pip, we explain more about when in your pregnancy your baby's head will engage, what that means for the start of your labour – and what exactly those measurements in fifths mean…

When should I expect my baby’s head to engage?

This can vary quite a lot between different women and tends to depend quite a lot on whether this is your first baby or not.

First babies tend to engage early: any time in your 3rd trimester (which starts at 28 weeks) and most likely at about 36 weeks. Second or subsequent babies tend to engage later, much nearer to your delivery date or sometimes not until labour actually starts.

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"If you've had a baby before," says Midwife Pip, "your womb is a little looser and this can mean that this baby's head doesn't engage until you are actually in labour, when the power of your contractions helps to push your baby’s head deeper into your pelvis."

So, engagement is not an exact science.

If my baby's head is engaged, am I about to go into labour?

"No, it's absolutely not an indication that your labour is about to begin," says Midwife Pip.

"Your baby's head can be engaged for weeks before labour starts. In fact, your baby may even move in and out of your pelvis – engage and then unengage – as you near your due date.

"That said, when your baby's head is engaged, it does put pressure on your cervix, which may cause it to soften and start to open in readiness for labour. So it is probably true to say that, once your baby's head is engaged, you're more likely to go into labour sooner than later."

How can I tell if my baby’s head is engaged? What does it feel like?

You'll probably feel it physically – as a feeling that your baby has dropped down inside your body.

In your 3rd trimester, your fast-growing baby is competing for space with your lungs and stomach, so you can start to have a feeling of being 'full up' all the time and you even may find it more difficult than usual to breathe deeply. This can all change once your baby is engaged.

"Once your baby’s head is well down and engaged," says midwife Pip, "you may feel freer around your chest and stomach and find it easier to breathe. You may also feel heavier in your pelvis – there may even be some pressure there, making the idea of a long walk less appealing and upping the frequency of your trips to the loo."

Your ribs are free at last and you can breathe better. You can also feel baby pushing down very low. I wouldn't describe it as pain but it is uncomfortable. It makes me waddle a lot more. It's a real heavy feeling. I definitely need the loo a lot more than before, too
Kate from our MadeForMums Community

You may also feel shooting pains deep in your pelvis or crotch area as your baby engages, too. These pains can come and go and are often referred to a 'lightning pains' (because they zing down like lightning). All of which is very confusing, as engagement itself is often called 'lightening', which sounds the same but actually refers to a feeling of lighter, freer feeling in your chest as your baby drops down.

Once your baby's head is engaged, you – and others – may also be easily able to see that your bump has dropped and looks to be sitting lower on your body.

Your midwife will also be able to feel for engagement of your baby when she palpates your tummy at your routine antenatal appointments.

"It is important to say, at this point, though," says Midwife Pip, "that – as with almost every other aspect of pregnancy – this lightening and dropping is very common but may not be experienced by everyone."

3 factors that can affect when your baby's head engages

  • Your baby's position in your womb. If your baby is in a posterior position (their back to your back) it may take longer for them to engage, for example.
  • How much space there is in your womb. If your baby has lots of room to move, they are less likely to engage early.
  • The relationship between the size, shape and position of your baby's head and the size and shape of your pelvis. This is important because, to be engaged, the widest part of your baby's head has to have dipped below the brim of (or entrance to) your pelvis (see the diagram in What does my midwife mean by 4/5 or 3/5 or 2/5 engaged?, below). 

People often think that the position of your placenta or the size of your baby can also affect when your baby's head will engage but, says Midwife Pip, there is no evidence to suggest either is true. 

What does my midwife mean by 4/5 or 3/5 or 2/5 engaged?

graphic of midwife chart showing stages of baby's head engagement in pelvis

Midwives have a measurement system (illustrated above0 to record how deeply your baby's head has descended into in your pelvis.

This measurement system works in fifths, which is why you might hear or see (in your antenatal notes), measurements such as 4/5 or 3/5 or 2/5 engaged.

Here’s what those measurements mean:

  • 5/5. Your baby's head has not yet engaged. It is sitting above the brim of your pelvis (the 'hole' between the 2 connected hip parts) and your midwife can still feel all of your baby's head in your tummy still.
  • 4/5. Your baby's head is just beginning to enter into your pelvis, but only the very top or back of the head (1/5th) of it. The rest (4/5) can be felt in your tummy by your midwife.
  • 3/5. At this point, the widest part of your baby's head has moved into your pelvic brim.
  • 2/5. More of the front part of your baby's head has passed over your pelvic brim.
  • 1/5. Most (4/5) of your baby's head is in your pelvis. This is the most position of most babies' heads in labour.
  • 0/5. Your baby is now entirely in your pelvis and is being born. Their head will be visible in your vagina.

"The phrase 2/5 or 3/5 engaged simply records your baby's progress and descent into your pelvis," says Midwife Pip. "Some midwives may record it as 2/5 or 3/5 'palpable': palpable just means that the baby's head can be felt on physical examination of your abdomen.

"You’re unlikely to hear or see measurements below 2/5 palpable before your labour has started."

What can I do to make my baby’s head engage?

Honestly? Nothing much. Your baby will engage when they’re good and ready.

That said, as you can see from 3 factors that can affect when your baby's head engages, above, babies in a posterior postion (their spine to your spine) tend to engage later than babies in an anterior position (their spine to your bump).

“This is because,” says Midwife Pip, “an anterior position better allows your baby to curl up comfortably and tuck their head which, in turn, facilitates engagement.

To encourage your baby to get into this anterior position, it is a good idea to be active and try some exercise that can help gravity rotate your baby. These include...

  • Walking
  • Swimming
  • Yoga, squats or lunges
  • Getting down on all fours
  • Sitting on the floor with your feet together and your knees apart
  • Kneeling and leaning forward

"And try to avoid reclining back on a soft sofa or slouching in chairs or car seats," adds Midwife Pip.

Once my baby’s head is engaged, how long before I go into labour?

So, we already know that just because the baby’s head is engaged, it doesn't mean that you will definitely go into labour soon. But when will labour start?

"Unfortunately, nobody can answer that,” says Midwife Pip. "Some babies like to confuse us by popping out and repositioning themselves. So just try to relax and wait for your labour – and your baby – to take its course."

About our expert midwife Midwife Pip

Midwife Pip, MSc, is an experienced Midwifery Sister, founder of the Midwife Pip Podcast, antenatal educator – and a mum. 

Pip runs online antenatal and postnatal courses and believes passionately that, with the right support and with honest and evidence-based information, all births should be positive. You can find her on Instagram @midwife_pip.

Kate, who is quoted above, describing what it felt like when her baby's head engaged, is a member of our MadeForMums Community

Pic: Getty Images. Illustration: Jordan Edmonds-Moore


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Helen Brown
Helen BrownHead of Content Delivery

Helen is author of the classic advice book Parenting for Dummies and a mum of 3. Before joining MadeForMums, she was Head of Community at Mumsnet and also the Consumer Editor of Mother & Baby.