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What Does Baby's Fetal Station in Labor and Delivery Mean?

Your fetal station is an important marker doctors use to determine how soon baby will come. But what is it, exactly?
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Published November 13, 2023
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There’s a lot going on during labor and delivery, and it’s natural to want to know how things are progressing. One term you might catch your provider using at some point: fetal station.

While it isn’t a phrase that doctors and midwives typically use in conversation with patients, it only makes sense to want to be informed about what it means. So what is fetal station, and what does it mean for your labor and delivery experience? Read on to learn more and check out our fetal station chart.

What Is Fetal Station?

Fetal station is a term used to describe the position of baby’s head as it descends into the pelvis, explains Meleen Chuang, MD, medical director of women’s health at the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone. “In obstetric terms, the pelvis is divided into imaginary sections called stations,” she says. “The station is measured in centimeters and ranges from -5 to +5.”

A station that’s -5 means that baby’s head is high and hasn’t yet entered the pelvis, while a station of +5 means that baby’s head is crowning and needs to be delivered, Chuang says.

“A baby’s head is said to be engaged in the pelvis when the widest part of the head is fixed in the opening of the pelvis (or pelvic inlet),” notes Jonathan Schaffir, MD, an ob-gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. “Because it’s impossible to feel all the way up to the inlet, station is measured relative to bony protuberances off the sides of the pelvis, called the ischial spines.”

When the top of the head is at the level of the ischial spines, it’s known as “zero (0) station,” Schaffir says. Baby’s head moving through the birth canal is then marked by centimeters past this point, which would be +1, +2, etc. “It’s a useful way to know that labor is progressing and the baby’s head is making its way through the birth canal,” he says.

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How to determine fetal station

Your provider will determine your fetal station with a physical exam, says Matthew Carroll, MD, assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. “During a sterile exam, one finger is positioned on the presenting part of the fetus—most often, the head,” he says. “That’s compared to the fixed position of the ischial spines.”

Your provider “will estimate the station of baby’s head by feeling how many centimeters above or below the ischial spines the head is located,” Chuang says.

Fetal Station Chart

Your fetal station helps your care team know where baby is in the process of labor, giving them an indication of how soon your little one will arrive and how well things are progressing. The below fetal station chart explains what the measurement means:

Image: Pepermpron/Shutterstock | The Bump

How Fetal Station Relates to Bishop Score

Another term you may hear during labor and delivery is Bishop score. This is a scoring system that your healthcare provider uses to evaluate how ready your cervix (the small canal that connects your vagina and uterus) is for a labor induction, or to try to predict your odds of having a successful vaginal delivery, Chuang explains.

Your Bishop score calculates five different components for a total score of 13, Schaffir says. “Fetal station is one of the components of the Bishop score, with higher numbers adding more points to a Bishop score, making the exam more favorable,” Carroll says.

Again, your provider is unlikely to use a term like “fetal station” when talking directly to you about your labor and delivery. However, you can always ask about it if you’re curious—it may help give you an indication of how long it’ll be before baby arrives.

Please note: The Bump and the materials and information it contains are not intended to, and do not constitute, medical or other health advice or diagnosis and should not be used as such. You should always consult with a qualified physician or health professional about your specific circumstances.

Sources

Matthew Carroll, MD, is an assistant professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Baylor College of Medicine in Houston. He earned his medical degree from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York.

Meleen Chuang, MD, is the medical director of women’s health at the Family Health Centers at NYU Langone. She earned her medical degree from Stony Brook University School of Medicine in Stony Brook, New York.

Jonathan Schaffir, MD, an ob-gyn at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center. He earned his medical degree from Brown University Program in Medicine in Providence, Rhode Island.

Learn how we ensure the accuracy of our content through our editorial and medical review process.

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