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The Ring of Fire During Birth (and What You Can Do About It)

You may have heard of the “ring of fire” that happens during birth. Keep reading to find out what it’s really like, when it happens, and what you can do to make it just a little easier.

baby being born

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The moment of the birth of your child is like nothing else you’ll ever experience. It’s magical. 

What you may not realize is that that moment will be immediately preceded by something people call “the ring of fire,” which can be significantly less magical.

What is the Ring of Fire and When Does It Happen?

The “ring of fire” happens at a time during labor and birth called “crowning.”

Crowning happens at the end of the second stage of labor, at the very end of pushing. It’s called crowning because this is the moment when your baby’s head reaches your vaginal opening and starts to put continual pressure on the tissues there.

Up until the point of crowning, it’s normal for your baby to descend some during contractions and then slide back up a bit in between contractions. Crowning is when your baby reaches the point where their head is visible and they stop sliding back in and stay where they are.

That’s why it’s called the ring of fire. Because your baby isn’t sliding back in anymore, the pressure on your perineum (the tissue and muscle between your vagina and anus) is constant. And that creates a burning feeling. 

Some women feel a tightening or stretching sensation. To some women it feels tingly. It may even feel slightly numb. Burning is the most common description, hence the name.

Thinking back on my experience giving birth to my first daughter, I remember saying to my birth team that it hurt. I had been pushing for a long time so I was pretty out of it. But I remember reaching down and feeling my baby’s head. The skin around her head (my skin) was really taut.

In my memory, the word that comes to mind is “hot.” So I guess I did experience the burning!

What NOT to Do When You Feel the Ring of Fire

Because crowning can be painful, it’s natural to get scared or to want to get it over with as fast as possible. That’s actually the opposite of what you want to do, though. 

Of course, you want to minimize the pain of crowning. But you also want to avoid tearing.

Perineal tearing happens when the skin and muscles between your vagina and your anus (the perineum) are under too much pressure or are not relaxed enough to let your baby through. I talk all about tearing in Perineal Tearing During Birth: What It Is and How to Avoid It

If you can avoid tearing, you’ll make postpartum recovery that much easier for yourself.

So with those two goals in mind, let’s go over what NOT to do when you experience the ring of fire. 

The Don’ts

When you feel the burning, tingling sensation of crowning, do NOT…

Tense up. Tensing your muscles will make it harder for your baby to be born, create more pain, and significantly increase your risk of tearing.

Scream. Screaming takes needed energy and sends it out your mouth. Instead, concentrate that energy on all the things we’re going to talk about below that help ease the pain of crowning.

Hold your breath. Holding your breath often comes hand-in-hand with tensing up. Like clenching your muscles, holding your breath will create more pressure and lead to more pain and more tearing. Plus, it will deprive you and your baby of oxygen, which you both need.

Push really hard. While your first instinct may be to push harder when you feel the ring of fire, I really recommend you don’t. Why? Because I did. And I tore.

Pushing hard gets your baby out faster, but it puts extra pressure on your perineum. Because your baby will move faster through your vaginal opening those tissues likely won’t have enough time to soften and stretch around your baby’s head.

I had learned about crowning while I was pregnant for the first time, but in the middle of labor I didn’t remember to slow down and nobody reminded me. Make sure your birth team is ready to help you when you get to the ring of fire.

What TO Do When You Feel the Ring of Fire

While most women will experience the ring of fire, there are things you can do to ease the pain a little and make it less likely you will tear. Here are some ideas.

Stay calm and relax.

This is the opposite of tensing your muscles when you feel the burn. Focus on going limp and releasing all tension from your entire body. This will minimize extra pressure on your perineum and decrease your chances of tearing.

Breathe or pant through contractions.

Up to this point, you’ve likely been pushing with your contractions to maximize the effectiveness of them. Once you reach crowning, you don’t want to do that anymore.

That’s harder said than done though.

Some women find it helpful to pant through contractions so they aren’t tempted to push and their baby can come out slowly.

Use water and warmth.

Warm water can do wonders for relieving a bit of discomfort during crowning. Some women choose to give birth in a pool (or a tub), which can provide buoyancy and heat to soothe. A warm washcloth pressed to the perineum can also work.

Apply pressure.

Applying gentle pressure with your hands – or having your husband or midwife use their hands – can help encourage the skin of your perineum to relax and stay intact.

Use lubrication.

Some women use lubrication, like olive oil or coconut oil, to help the baby slide out easier and decrease the intensity and, perhaps, length of crowning. Your midwife can help apply lubrication just before crowning, if you want.

Change your mindset.

Though being positive can be hard when you’re in pain, try thinking of crowning differently. Crowning is the very last step before your baby is born. You can make it through this sensation because then you get to meet your baby!

Plus, though the ring of fire isn’t fun, it isn’t long. Compared to the rest of your labor, this is a very short period of time. You can do anything for a minute or two.

Have your birth team remind you it’s normal.

In that same vein, it might help if your birth team remembers to encourage you in this moment. Plan beforehand to have them remind you that what you’re feeling is normal and what it means – that your baby is almost here!

If you need to make noise, moan or growl.

Like during the rest of labor, noises during crowning are welcome and encouraged (except screaming like we talked about above). Moaning, growling, or other low noises may help you get through the ring of fire a little easier.

The Ring of Fire and Epidurals

Real quick, I want to answer one common question about the ring of fire.

Does an epidural take away the pain of the ring of fire?

Unfortunately, the answer is “not always.” Sometimes an epidural can lessen or take away the pain of the ring of fire. But sometimes you still feel it all. So my advice is to not count on it. Expect to feel the ring of fire and be ready for it, with the tips we just talked about.

To Sum Up: The Ring of Fire During Birth

So the ring of fire during birth is real. And it is painful. But you don’t have to be afraid of it; you can do things to make it a little easier.

Don’t tense up, scream, or hold your breath.

Instead, focus on breathing, relaxing, and letting your body and baby do the work. Use comfort measures like water, warmth, and pressure to ease some of the pain. Try to change your mindset and get a good birth team that can help you get through it. 

You also want to avoid tearing. Though you won’t feel a tear when it happens, you will feel it after birth. Postpartum will be just a little easier if you don’t also have to heal from a tear.

If you haven’t already, I recommend you check out my blog posts about perineal tearing and exercises to prevent tearing.

And that’s that. Now you know all about crowning and the ring of fire during birth. If you have questions, let me know in the comments! Or if you’ve already experienced the ring of fire, tell us what it was like for you!

Until next time,

Allison

READ MORE:

The Three Stages of Labor (and How to Know Which You’re In)

Is Childbirth Painful? (The Answer Might Surprise You)

The Cascade of Interventions [Explained]

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