13 moms share what it really feels like.
My first child was born via C-section after eighteen hours of labor. My second time around, it was important to me to do everything I could to have a vaginal delivery. Since those can be difficult to experience after you've had a C-section, I was diligent about doing a ton of research and “inspirational reading.” I made a point to read the birth stories of other women who'd had vaginal births after a C-section — also known as having a “VBAC”. I wanted to know what they did during childbirth, and what the felt during labor and delivery, including what the “ring of fire” — the sensation of the baby crowning — actually might feel like. I wanted to feel as ready as I could, even though I knew I couldn’t really know exactly what was coming.
“Ring of Fire,” in addition to being a seismically active area of the Pacific and a song by June Carter Cash, describes that magical moment when a huge baby descends into your vagina and gets ready to come out. Before we get the low-down on exactly what the sensation of the baby crowning felt like, here’s what you should know about this stage of labor, what to do if you’re in it, and how to get through it.
What to do during childbirth if you're experiencing the “ring of fire”
Hang in there. “Simply continuing to push might be the best thing to do as there is usually quick relief after the birth,” Bratschie explains. “Sometimes different breathing techniques can help with the intensity like short breaths or making your lips vibrate with the out breath. Support and encouragement are also helpful to remind women that, although intense, this feeling is normal and will end.”
What if I tear when the baby's head is crowning?
Tearing is a scary idea, but it’s a natural part of delivery for many birthing people. “Most women going into labor have a fear of tearing. But most women do tear, and it is a very normal course of childbirth,” Bratschie explains. “What's important to remember is that the vagina heals very well postpartum, we often don't feel the tearing and it can happen regardless of baby's size.”
What does it feel like when your baby's head is crowning?
When my time came, I opted for an epidural. But just when I needed it the most, my epidural opted out on me. So during delivery I felt everything. The ring of fire is... wow. I personally don't know if I would call it the worst part of labor because my contractions were powerful and lasted for hours, whereas my actual delivery only took about 45 minutes. Yet the sensations cannot physically compare. I don't even know quite how to describe it. Fortunately, I talked to some friends who can, and they got really descriptive.
“Time and distance has kindly stricken that from my memory.”
“Like you are legit sh*tting out a Costco size bag worth of Doritos. No lube.”
“I remember hearing other moms talk about the 'ring of fire,' but no one ever really went into detail about it. It was more of 'you'll know it when you feel it' discussion. When I was delivering my almost 9 lb first child, I was introduced to the 'ring of fire,' and the moms were right. You know it when you feel it. It feels like your vagina is being ripped apart and set on fire at the same time. In reality, my vagina was sort of being ripped apart. I left the hospital with lots of stitches. Worst part of delivery, definitely.”
"With my first baby it felt like someone took a lightsaber to my nether regions and was trying to dissect me. Baby number two felt exactly like a ring of fire and was the only thing I could feel. Contractions, thirst, and exhaustion were all a distant memory. My midwife kept telling to relax between contractions, then push when they started, and I literally screamed at her that all I felt was fire. My third baby had a shoulder dystocia and I had her standing up. I felt the burn, and I pushed and waited for it to stop and it didn't and I remember being so confused. After the ring of fire is a little shoulder push and then this slithery feeling that is accompanied with sweet relief! It wasn't happening and my body was bearing down to get rid of the burn! Just when I thought I couldn't possibly burn anymore, my midwife did something called a Wood's Screw Maneuver and proved me wrong."
“My epidural wore off by the time I got down to pushing. When [my son] started really crowning, and I suspect his head was about halfway out, I started letting out the loudest, most guttural screams I've ever let out. I swear the entire labor and delivery floor could hear me. It was the most intense, localized insane pain I had ever felt. It was so different from contractions. Once his head was out I pushed once more for the rest of his body, and the OB had to catch him as he came flying out of me. I don't recall how things felt after he was out because I was so fixated on watching them clear his airways and listening for those first cries.”
“So my epidural wore off as I was pushing out my enormous nine-pound baby so, lucky me, I got to feel the ring of fire (though, I do admit, I think it was less intense than it would have been if I'd gone completely unmedicated). But I was so preoccupied with the idea that my butthole was going to explode (I was legitimately convinced it was really going to happen) that the ring of fire, while excruciating, was still secondary somehow.”
“Basically like one person is stretching one half of your vagina one way, while another person stretches the other half of it the other way, while a third person sets it on fire.”
“I had two home births and hardly felt anything like a 'ring of fire.' I kept waiting for it, and then thought, 'That was it?' The contractions were far worse than the actual exit.”
“There are no words!”
“You know when you have a stomach bug and you have liquid diarrhea for a day or more and your butthole becomes raw and just stings non-stop? Well it kind of feels like that, except it’s your vagina so it’s about eleventy thousand times worse. Oh, also imagine that while you are feeling that stinging sensation on your lady bits, people are pulling every inch of your vag in a different direction. Good news is that when you feel that, you will be meeting your precious nugget shortly!”
“It already feels like you have to poop the worst poop in your entire life with all of the pressure, but pushing makes that feel better. Your doctor is telling you the end is in sight because the baby’s head is coming out but all of a sudden, you wish the baby would shoot back up because it feels like someone is ripping open your vag from every angle while it’s on fire. The fire is similar to getting lemon juice on a paper cut and simultaneously burning it up in an oven. It’s the strangest, most painful sensation but as soon as the baby pops out, it’s over!”
“For me it sort of feels like someone with big meat hook hands is down in the vag with an oversized speculum that is crank powered to open and stretch the walls, and this person is spinning that crank like hell while distracted on Facebook, and so they don't realize they've spun the crank too fast and too far. So you’re being stretched all to sh*t in what feels like a searing explosive burn, as if the person spinning the speculum crank decided to also snuff a cigarette out on the taut and raw skin.”
“Imagine you ate a baby-sized burrito and loaded it with hot sauce. But you also doused it in queso, so now you are a little constipated. Also, your digestive system has gone awry, so the baby sized burrito is the same size because it hasn't been digested and now you have to push it out of your vagina. Except it's loaded with hot sauce. So your stomach hurts because now you have to push out this baby (sized burrito) and you're pushing and pushing and finally you know it's right there and you're almost done but you forgot about the hot sauce so now your vagina is lit up because it got a taste of the hot sauce. So now you're pushing even harder because get that little sh*t out now but screaming because someone just set fire to your undercarriage. And then it's done!”
Whatever happens, know that you’re following in the footsteps of every person who has ever had a baby, ever, in the history of the universe. You can do this — even the “ring of fire” will pass, and at the end of it all, you’ll be holding your newborn baby.
Alexandra Bratschie, a certified nurse midwife at Corewell Health
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