When Should A Baby Engage In Pregnancy?

When Should A Baby Engage In Pregnancy?

As the third trimester comes to an end, there can be a great deal of focus and anticipation about your baby becoming engaged. So what does being ‘engaged’ really mean?

When your baby descends into your pelvis, how far baby has descended is measured by the ‘station’, with 0 station being engaged.

When a baby is at 0 station, it’s head is resting at what is called the ischial spines (sometimes just referred to as ‘spines’) which is the narrowest part of your pelvis.

If your baby is above the spines, he or she is not engaged.

It will be measured as a minus number – for example if your baby is 5cms above spines, you would be -5. Or if your baby was 1cm above the spines, then -1.

Once your baby descends past 0 station, a positive number is used.

If your baby is 1cm below spines, it’s +1 and so on.

When Should A Baby Be Engaged?

This is completely up to your baby.

Yes, first time babies can engage sooner than second or subsequent.

But it does not mean there’s a problem if your baby doesn’t engage before labour starts.

Even for first time mothers, babies can engage during labour, with the early contractions helping to bring baby down lower into your pelvis.

There’s no formula at all to work this out – just when your baby is ready.

An unengaged baby has nothing to do with your body’s ability to give birth and it doesn’t mean your baby is being cheeky!

Babies know when it’s time to engage, and the vast majority will do so when they’re good and ready.

Trust your body and trust your baby, to work in unison when the time is right.

Remember: your body is designed to go into labour – mother nature has it worked out really well!

I think we’d be in trouble as a species if our babies didn’t engage, and our bodies didn’t go into labour eventually.

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If My Baby Isn’t Engaged, Does It Mean It’s Too Big For My Pelvis?

Not at all.

In the small number of cases where the baby doesn’t engage even at 41-42 weeks, it’s more likely that your baby has adopted a tricky position in your pelvis, rather than the baby being too big for your pelvis.

Remember that it simply may be that your baby just isn’t ready to engage.

For those babies who do get in a posterior or other tricky position, the Spinning Babies website is brilliant for helping malpositioned, posterior or breech babies.

You can also also seek alternative therapies like chiropractic (ideally the therapist will be experienced in the Webster technique) and acupuncture to help with position and labour preparation.

The Spinning Babies website is a great resource regardless – it can help your baby get into the best position for birth, which is called ‘optimal fetal positioning’.

Also, there are two great articles on BellyBelly you must read if you are concerned about your baby’s size or your pelvis size:

What About Inductions?

Inducing a high baby can be disastrous.

Not only do inductions increase the risk of fetal distress, and therefore, c-sections, but if the waters are broken with a high or unengaged baby, cord prolapse is a big risk.

This happens when the cord could drops below the baby’s head (as the head isn’t near the cervix to block it) and the cord can prolapse through the vagina.

A full term pregnancy is up to 42 weeks. Given your baby is healthy and you are healthy, there is no reason to schedule an induction at least until then, to give your baby the best chance at being born on the day she or he decides is the perfect time.

Your baby is putting on finishing touches to cope with the world on the outside, especially in relation to breathing, so every day in your womb counts.

To give you an idea of how inductions can affect the outcome of babies who are not ready, a baby induced at -5 station will give you a 70-80% risk of a caesarean section.

So inductions are best avoided, and trust and waiting is the best medicine.

Will I Need A Caesarean?

There is a very low chance you will need one if you just wait and see – you are more likely to have one if you are induced.

There will be a very small number of women who have a baby in a position too tricky to be born vaginally, but this can happen if your baby is engaged or not.

Not being engaged does not mean this will happen to you specifically.

If you are worried about position, see Spinning Babies as per above and keep active in your pregnancy and the birth.

Walking for 30 minutes a day is great for your mood as well as your body and baby, as is swimming (breaststroke or anything else belly down!).

Walking the stairs is an awesome pre or during labour tool, as it helps moves to move your pelvis around for your baby. Don’t push yourself too much though.

Many women who have babies that engage at the time of labour go on to have healthy vaginal births.

Why The Fuss?

It has been said in obstetric textbooks that the majority of first babies should engage several weeks before labour.

Ironically, research contradicts this and suggests that approximately 70-75% of babies may not be engaged at the start labour.

The research also looks at the rate of caesareans where the baby is not engaged prior to labour, and found that approximately 85-90% of babies that were not engaged at the onset of active labour were born vaginally. Hardly anything worth worrying about!

Considering we know the caesarean rate in Australia is amongst the highest in the world, well above the World Health Organization’s recommendations, I think we need to spend more time ‘waiting and seeing’ and intervening when really needed.

Unengaged babies are not distressed, they are quite happy waiting in there (unless of course there is something else going on) so why fix something that’s not broken – and potentially cause more problems it in the process?

There is no point risking major surgery which carries its own set of risks – unless the benefits outweigh the risks.

Research On Unengaged Babies And Labour

Here are two studies about unengaged babies and the commencement of labour.

Incidence and significance of the unengaged fetal head in nulliparas in early labor
Int J Biol Res Pregnancy. 1982;3(1):8-9, Takahashi K, Suzuki K.

“Our clinical experience contradicts the traditional view that in the great majority of nulliparas with cephalic presentation the fetal head is engaged 1-2 weeks prior to onset of labor. In 75.4% of the 175 cases fetal head was not engaged in early labor. No significant statistical difference between the unengaged-head group and the engaged-head group was determined for incidence of vaginal delivery, cesarean section for cephalopelvic disproportion, midforceps delivery, mean and low Apgar scores, and birth weight. Thus, absence of engagement is not always indicative of pelvic contraction.”

Labor and delivery in nulliparous women who present with an unengaged fetal head
Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology, Albert Einstein College of Medicine, New York, NY, USA.
J Perinatol. 1998 Mar-Apr;18(2):122-5, Murphy K, Shah L, Cohen WR

OBJECTIVE: We assessed the relation of fetal station in early labor to subsequent patterns of dilation and descent and to the probability of cesarean delivery.

RESULTS: Of the 132 participants, 29 (22%) presented with an engaged fetal head, and 103 (78%) presented with an unengaged fetal head. In the unengaged group, 15 (11%) presented with a floating fetal head (-3 station or above), and 88 (67%) presented with a dipping fetal head (-2 or -1 station). A floating head in latent-phase labor conferred a longer second stage (p = 0.02), a trend to more active-phase labor disorders (p = 0.06), and a greater risk of cesarean delivery. Overall, 12 patients (9%) underwent primary cesarean section: 2 (6.9%) from the engaged group, 6 (6.8%) from the dipping group, and 4 (27%) from the floating group (p = 0.042).

CONCLUSION: Most nulliparous women in this study presented in labor with an unengaged fetal head. Those with a floating fetal head demonstrated higher rates of cesarean section than those with dipping or engaged heads in early labor. [Overall 90.3% delivered vaginally.]”

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Kelly Winder is the creator of BellyBelly.com.au, a writer, doula (trained in 2005), and a mother of three awesome children. She's passionate about informing and educating fellow thinking parents and parents-to-be, especially about all the things she wishes she knew before she had her firstborn. Kelly is also passionate about travel, tea, travel, and animal rights and welfare. And travel.


  1. It was this article that calmed me down. 7 years later it is still inspirational and good. Thank you! Am in week 38 and the baby has not descended. Not to mention how worried I am over this. But your article was extremely helpful. Thanks again. Cheers.

  2. Thank you so much for this article. At 39.3 I needed some confidence to hold off the medical hoards who are trying to encourage me down a caesarean pathway because baby isn’t quite engaged yet. I feel better armed to ask questions and challenge their plans as long as me and Baby continue to be well.

  3. Great article
    I’m having my sixth in 8 yrs and the ob told me all these risks i have because I am 39 weeks and not engaged I found it very odd and upsetting to be made scared and second guess everything I didn’t experience these warnings all the other times with my regular ob he was good at what he does and acts on facts not what ifs and scaring the mother
    Yes there are risks in any circumstance but women do not need to hear things that are far fetched or unrelated or proven it just adds to stress and starts the ball rolling for a whole lot of panic and intervention it does the mother no good and im sick of the medical team talking for the sake of it with almost a satisfaction they are unloading all these ‘facts’ and I go home having anxiety for no reason.
    At my 36 and a half week check I had three midwives tell me labour was days away and it was a concern as the baby was breech my cervix was completely closed no contractions or water loss or plug loss etc all this because mild braxton hicks, I didn’t even notice the tightening till they all hovered and discussed the issues and immenent’ risks coming my way no logic in thinking maybe that was my bodies reaction to a breech baby and helping it move,
    any how a few days later baby went head down on its own and tightening stopped so here I am still pregnant at 39 and 4 days when they said any day now at 36 weeks now dr was worried why I haven’t had the baby yet while I was 39 weeks and 1 day and why isn’t it engaged is it too big maybe I should do an induction
    Where is there evidence in any of the things they are saying if they induced me now what weight are they going to prevent the baby from gaining??? 20-100grams??? And what did that achieve if that is the only reason for induction????? More risks??? People need to get a grip
    I agree Risks are if there is a distressed baby or placenta/cord, water lost, blood lost, health problems in the mother or baby
    I disagree A risk isn’t purely because your 39 weeks and haven’t gone into labour yet

  4. It is first my full term.my edd-14.12.2016 .baby head is not engaged .so iam worried about my labour.need your counselling.

  5. My daughter in law is due 20th January, 2017 – last week the midwife informed the baby was engaged. We have our Xmas function 3 hrs away from Sydney on 23rd and 24th December, 2016. She is worried to come – just in case. Not sure what the answer should be? Any help would be appreciated.
    Cheryl CC

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