What Does Pushing Feel Like In Labor?

Photo donated by a reader for use, by dfwbirthphotographer.com.  The moments just after birth.
What does "pushing" or the second stage of labor feel like?

So often when we think of labor we simply think of crowning and birth.  Labor is so much more than just the actual crowning.  Most birth videos, even natural ones, focus on those final moments of pushing out the baby.  

I think we can all honestly say that the first time we saw that or even thought about a baby coming out of a normally pretty small vagina it seemed almost impossible.  Painful?  Of course pushing LOOKS painful- but it often isn't and can feel wonderful and exhilarating. 

Women often SOUND as though they are in pain when they are pushing, especially at the end.  Even a rather quietly laboring woman will almost inevitably be very vocal during this time.  Some will moan, others will scream or even shriek. 

So, what does second stage labor or pushing feel like?  The truth is that there isn't one simple answer for this.  As with anything having to do with birth there is vast variation in how women experience and feel it. 

Let's talk about some of the ways women describe the pushing part of labor and what it feels like.

Many women describe the pushing phase of labor as feeling like immense pressure very low down.  It is not uncommon for it to be described as a feeling like a very large bowel movement.  You feel like you "HAVE TO" push.  You may feel like there is just a LOT of pressure barreling down in your body.  Honestly, it is somewhat hard to describe to somebody who hasn't felt it. 

The amount of pressure that you will feel during pushing can be overwhelming, to some it is scary, and it is certainly powerful.  I think this is physiologically normal and a very important feeling.  It helps mom work to push the baby out in a timely manner because she simply feels like she MUST do it. 

I think we often think of the pushing phase of labor as being incredibly painful because it LOOKS like it is- but it is important to remember that for many women pushing in labor is enjoyable and painless.  Just because a woman has a head coming out of her vagina and she is howling in a most primal way does not actually mean she is in pain.  She is probably riding the immense power of her body on a tidal wave that she can't get off of.  Is she in pain?  Who knows- many women LOVE this part of labor.

But- for some pushing is incredible painful.  It can feel like it hurts or like your body is "splitting in two" (some women use that description). 

I almost hate to admit that pushing can be painful because I want women to feel re-invigorated when pushing begins and be EXCITED that they will be meeting their baby soon. 

In truth though, it is sometimes described as painful and that is a viable and honest emotion.  I have found with my own births that pain may or MAY NOT be part of pushing.  It has been different with different babies.  With some it was totally painless and with others excruciating. 

I will say that IF pushing is painful for you, when it has been so for me it went faster and was incredibly motivating.  Again, if pushing for you is accompanied by pain I believe it serves a purpose.  I try VERY hard to push my baby out when I am feeling like that and it hastens the entire process.

For those humans who have not given birth (ie, men) it seems incomprehensible that pushing a seven or eight pound baby out of a formally small space could be pleasurable.  But it is in fact so for some women. 

Some women simply enjoy pushing because they get to work with their body.  During labor contractions if you are trying hard to relax then the change in the feel of contractions when you start pushing can be re-vitalizing, exciting, and enjoyable.  Sometimes I think that really athletic women enjoy this part of labor that is very physical work.  Finally it feels like you are doing something! 

Other women describe pushing as more than enjoyable but pleasurable.  (Yes, the term orgasmic has been tossed around.)  If you think about what is happening physiologically at the time of pushing and birth there are many similar hormones, body parts, and sensations that are used during other times of climax.  It is not so strange that some women really enjoy pushing.

Your body desperately wants you to LOVE and care for this baby.  Your body helps you do this by excreting high levels of the hormone oxytocin so that you will feel fierce emotions of attachment and love for this baby and others present at the birth. 

Truly, we are wonderfully made. 

~Crowning and the Ring of Fire~
Many people equate pushing with crowning but they are actually two different things.  You will push, possibly for hours, before ever seeing the head of the baby.  Crowning specifically refers to the time when the head of the baby is visible and stays visible.  Thus the word "crowning" since it will almost appear as though a crown is around the head of the baby. 

What does crowning feel like? 

Some women do feel a "ring of fire" when the head of the baby crowns.  Generally this feels like burning or stinging.  Some women report it as being very painful, some never even notice this sensation.  Don't be afraid of crowning- it is a good sign and you will meet your baby soon!  If you do experience crowning as a painful, burning sensaion, it is almost always over VERY quickly. 

Rather than fearing the "ring of fire" during crowning, I hope that women will be tuned into their body and listen to it at this point.  That burning sensation is your body telling you to "back off" for a moment and allow those tissues to stretch so that they don't tear.  Your body is smart.  It is not your enemy.  It will try to talk to you.  You will be better able to listen to it if you are able to feel it because you are unmedicated and not numb.  (This might be one of the reasons why some care providers feel that tearing is worse when women are numb.)

The time of crowning is often very short and exciting.  You will meet your baby soon.

So what does pushing feel like?  It is a little different for every woman.  But pushing is nothing to fear and is a wonderful time when you get to work with your body to get your baby out.  You will meet your baby soon!

If you would like more information on how to push in labor, check out this post. 


C. Beth said…
Pushing has been very painful to me during my two natural births. But you know what? That was okay. Really! The birth experiences were still INCREDIBLE. And the feeling of relief when that baby comes out is so strong. Pushing is (sometimes) very, very hard work. But I far preferred my (painful) natural labors over the medicated labor I had with my first child!

So glad I felt every bit of it...even the pain.
Anonymous said…
Pressure for sure usually. I've pushed 8 times, and I recall the first time I was relieved to push and I could feel him come down. It wasn't horrible, it was manageable. But the second time I felt pressure in my rear and it was very uncomfortable. It made me push quickly and I tore. 3rd birth I suddenly had the urge and barely felt the pushing, baby slid out. 4th time again I had the overwhelming pressure, I believe the baby was OP and was born really quickly. 5th was also very fast. 6th, the pushing felt like I was ramming a bowling ball into my pelvic bones. It was a long directed pushing phase with an overbearing nurse. I felt the baby was stuck. Ten minutes before her birth she turned as she had been OP. Then she slid out quickly. 7th birth was difficult to push as baby was OP and had decels. The midwife asked me not to vocalize due to the decels (I could hear them on the monitor) and she was OP with a head tilted. She came out OP though the midwife tried to turn her, the cord was not only around her neck, it was actually tight. She was OK, but was bruised terribly. It felt like ripping that time to crown. With the 8th, pushing was unreal, it felt too early but I had the urge. I felt like the baby wasn't moving, and that it was forever. However, looking at records it was only about 20 minutes. I did feel a slight burning, and slowly pushed his head out, and then the body. The baby slid out and joy. Every time the body sliding out was quite a relief.
momto5 said…
my first three births pushing was horrible, because i never got that feeling to push naturally, i was told... "your at 10cm, push" and i just pushed and pushed and it was pretty unpleasant. BUt with 4-6 no one said anything. i got to 10cm and then time stopped. no contractions nothing and then this pressure. not pain, just this crazy feeling like i HAD to push and it felt sooooo good. like so much relief. it was such an amazing difference. none of my 6 births was bad, but being able to listen to what my body needed to do, made such a HUGE difference.
Joy@WDDCH said…
For my natural births it was painful and you know what? I did get those babies out pretty darn quick. No, it's not a contest on who can get baby out the fastest (actually better to let that head stretch the tissue, of course) but the pain motivated me to push. My body knew how to push, too. I didn't have to think about it.

Time stands still in labor and pushing. I never can recall just how long things take. To me it seems like I pushed and that baby just came out. But afterward the midwife always tells me, "You did amazing! You waited when you needed to wait to really stretch the perineum and pushed when you needed to push" (they never told me when to push; just did what I felt like doing). Our bodies are amazing!!! Just listen and you'll be alright.

Finally I'd love to say, to mommies debating on natural birth or medicated birth - I have done both. I've had two epidural births with my first two babies (tore with them, btw). I felt terrible during and after the birth. I didn't even want to hold my second born because I was so ill from all the meds they pushed in the IV.

My last two births were natural. They were hard work. But I cannot even begin to describe the night-and-day difference. I felt ALIVE, I was so present and while it was painful it wasn't unbearable. I lived and if I could redo my epidural births I would do them without meds.
Nicky said…
My first pushing phase was exhausting. Absolutely totally exhausting. I couldn't lift my head by the end. I was doing it for what seemed like hours, for very little outcome. Turned out I was in a bad position to birth a 10lb baby, most likely it would have been quicker and easier in a more upright position! My second baby though was completely different. My pushing phase lasted 4 minutes, and he was out in one contraction. I was aware I was making some primal groaning sounds, but yes, I enjoyed it! It was amazing to feel him descending so fast, to feel my body working with my baby. I felt the ring of fire both times, maybe if I had backed off at this stage I wouldn't have ended up with 2nd degree tears both times, but I was eager to meet my baby!!
Suzannertorres said…
I loved pushing!! It felt really good to me. I hated the few seconds after pushing when it felt like he was moving back up and I was losing any progress I had when pushing, but I loved the feel of pushing. It did feel like I was finally able to do something instead of just trying to relax through the pain, but honestly it really did just feel good to push. It was empowering, exhilarating, and I loved it!
Unknown said…
During my first birth I had an epidural so all I felt was the ring of fire, at which point I pushed as hard as I could to get through that part, despite the nurse telling me not to push so hard.with my second I had the gas to get through the last part of transition (It had been a long labor) so I actually felt pushing, and after hours of contractions that were right on top of each other, pushing felt amazing, The pain of pushing wasn't that bad, in fact I found that part to be the easiest
Anonymous said…
I'm another one that found pushing painful. With my first homebirth (2nd baby) it was literally like my vagina was throwing up. I can't think of a better way to put it. It was completely involuntary, I had no control, and just had to ride it out. With my 2nd homebirth/3rd baby I had to actively push more, and with him I tore a slight bit so the ring of fire was worse. But obviously it wasn't anything I didn't think I could handle because I've done it voluntarily twice :)
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