Baby Crowning During Labour: What Does it Actually Feel Like?

(10 minute read)

There’s a lot of worry surrounding crowning. However, crowning signals that you’re about to meet your baby, that labour is almost finished, and that in a few pushes’ time, you'll be in recovery, getting to know your little one.

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What is crowning in labour?

So, what actually is crowning? Well, it’s essentially a stretching of your perineal muscles (the muscles in your perineum, which is located between the vulva and the anus). Crowning happens as your baby’s head prepares to be born, and it can feel like a sting or a burn as your muscles expand.

 

This sensation happens for a reason: to alert you that your baby is about to make their entrance, and soon! As well as this, it reminds you to take things slowly and to bring your legs closer together to minimise tearing. This is the stage of labour where you may be asked to lay on your back with your legs open wide, but the only people this benefits is the healthcare staff who want a better view of what’s going on. Really, you need to be in whichever position suits you bed and for most this is upright, on your knees and trying to keep your legs as close together as you can, so your perineal muscles aren't stretching more than they need to. This is likely to feel instinctive.

 

During this stage of labour, just remember to continue breathing so your body is getting the oxygen it needs to keep you calm. After the head has been born, you’ll be compelled to push a few more times to birth your baby’s body…and then hey presto, it’s baby time!

Newborn baby cuddling mother

Baby crowning during labour: what does it actually feel like?

Crowning feels a little bit like when you twist a patch of your skin in opposite directions - like you would as a kid in the playground. It feels like a sting. If you want to get an idea of what it feels like in advance of birth, try putting your index fingers into the edges of your mouth and stretching your lips apart - this is a bit like the sensation of crowning.

 

During crowning, you may feel a lot of pressure on your rectum, almost like you need to poo. This is completely normal, and breathing will help you to get through it. Taking long, slow, deep inhales and exhales will enable you to feel focused and in control.

Being in a comfortable position can also relieve some of the intensity. Remember, it’s the job of your midwife to support you and to take your lead, helping you to get into a position that feels good. It’s your right to do what feels natural for you - move instinctively, and advocate for yourself where necessary.

 

Many women are scared of crowning because they’re told that this is when they’re most likely to tear. Yes, this is true - but you will be guided through this part of labour. Your midwife should be encouraging you to keep your knees together so that the bottom part of your pelvis is open, and your skin isn’t pulled taught before your baby’s head starts to emerge. They may also use a warm compress to soften the skin and to help guide your baby’s head out. During this stage of labour, most women experience a 1st or 2nd degree tear - these won’t require stitches and can heal on their own at home.

Newborn baby holding it's parents hands

How painful is crowning during childbirth?

The reason you may feel the sensation of crowning is because your body is giving you a signal that your baby’s head is being born, and that their body will follow shortly after. It’s a clever way of telling you to get ready to catch your baby. This means that yes, you will feel your baby crowning and yes, it will feel like a stretch or a sting, but it shouldn’t be painful as such. I find it helps to break down different types of pain - there is bad pain where you break your arm and the pain signals that you need help, and there is good pain that serves a purpose, feels productive, is totally manageable, and alerts you to take action. That is what crowning pain is!

 

After the head has been born the ‘pain’ should disappear completely. Your vagina may feel swollen and a little battered after birth, but the pain from crowning will disappear as soon as the head has been born. This means that any discomfort you do experience should be temporary. Do seek support from your GP if pain continues after birth and doesn't show signs of improving.

Why is crowning also called the ‘ring of fire’

Crowning is often referred to as the 'ring of fire', which is an entirely unhelpful term. Some women do describe it like this, but out of context, hearing the idea of 'fire' being associated with your most private parts is going to instil fear in even the most hardy of birthers!

The term ‘ring of fire’ comes from birth workers, it’s just an association that caught on and hasn’t gone away. Truth be told it doesn’t feel like your vagina is on fire, it just feels like a sting or a stretch to the skin, and it usually only lasts a matter of minutes - if that!

What happens after crowning?

After your baby’s head has been born, their body follows moments just moments afterwards. It usually only takes a few pushes to birth the body and for you to enter recovery mode. This is because it would be dangerous for your baby’s body to remain unborn after you have birthed the head and could be a sign of shoulder dystocia - whereby your baby’s shoulder gets stuck behind your pubic bone. This is rare, happening in only 0.15% to 2% of all births. If you do experience shoulder dystocia, your midwife will be prepared to release the shoulder very quickly - they are highly trained in the event of an emergency like this.

 

For the vast majority of labours, your baby crowns, you push a few times, and your baby is born. At this point, I advise holding your baby in skin-to-skin, which involves placing them on your bare chest with a blanket or towel over them to keep them warm. I can’t recommend this enough - the benefits are huge. For example, once your baby is born it’s time for the placenta to release from the uterine wall to be birthed. Holding your baby in skin-to-skin will help your placenta to release efficiently, and it will also prompt milk production. This means that weighing your baby or taking their measurements can wait! All checks should be done from your chest, to prioritise skin-to-skin, unless there is a genuine medical need for your baby to be away from you. Even in this case, they should still be kept close to you.

Newborn baby holding it's parents hands

What if I tear when my baby crowns?

This is a common concern amongst parents, and that’s totally understandable. But a lot of the fear around tearing is based on the unknown. As with any element of birth, it’s helpful to get clued up about the reality of tearing so we can discard any inaccurate information and know what to expect. So, what are the facts?

  • Some women don’t tear at all!
  • If tearing does occur, most women experience a first-degree tear during labour. First-degree tears involve the skin and tissue of the perineum. These don’t usually require stitches and can heal on their own at home.
  • Some women may experience a second-degree tear. Second-degree tears involve the perineum and some of the tissue inside the vagina. These usually require stitches and a few weeks of recovery.
  • A small number of women experience a third-degree tear. Third-degree tears involve the perineum and the muscle surrounding the anus. These tears often require surgery and may take a bit longer than a few weeks to heal.
  • An even smaller number of women can experience a fourth-degree tear. Fourth-degree tears involve the perineum, anal sphincter, and the mucous membrane that lines the rectum. Like third-degree tears, these tears require surgery and a longer recovery time.
  • The more oxytocin you have in your system, the less likely you are to tear. So get those hypnobirthing tracks on and make your birth location as cosy and private as possible! You can explore the butterbean hypnobirthing course here for tips on getting started.
  • Being in an upright, forward and open position during the crowning stage of labour will help to boost your oxytocin and reduce your chances of tearing.
  • Bringing your knees together while crowning will open your pelvic outlet, and this also reduces your chances of tearing.
  • The truth is that crowning is usually very quick - and once it’s done, it’s done.

 

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