What to Expect When the Baby Is Crowning

Julie Kirk
Co-author Susie McGee
Pregnant woman in the delivery room

Crowning is the point of labor when the top of the baby's head can be seen and remains visible at the vaginal opening. Once crowning occurs, you can expect your baby to be arriving relatively soon.

Expect Changes in Your Body as it Prepares for Labor

A couple weeks prior to actual labor, your body will begin to prepare for labor and delivery. Your baby's head will begin to shift lower in your pelvis. When you baby's head is situated below the pubic bone, the baby is considered to be engaged in position. This typically happens well before the start of labor but may not happen until the actual first signs of labor. Once the head shifts into the birth canal, you may notice you are able to breathe easier due to the baby moving down and there is now less pressure against your diaphragm and lungs. However, you may also notice there's increased pressure on your bladder from the baby's head which can cause discomfort and the need to urinate more frequently.

Labor and Crowning

Labor is different for everyone. The length of time labor will actually take will vary as well. It can range from approximately 6 to 18 hours. Once you begin having contractions and progress through the first stage of labor, your cervix will be fully effaced (thinned out) and 10 centimeters dilated. This is when crowning will occur.

Stages of birth illustration

Expect Changes in Baby's Movements

Later in the third trimester when your baby settles deeper into the pelvis, you should expect some changes in your baby's movements or activity level. It is not unusual that the more intense movements such as strong kicks or sharp jabs, turn into significant stretches, rolls or pokes during this time.

As your baby gets bigger, he should still be active but may slow down a bit because his movements become more restricted due to his size. He simply can't move because there's less room. There is also the possibility that your baby is quieter for a stretch of time because he is sleeping.

Expect Braxton Hicks Contractions

It is common for Braxton Hicks contractions to be mistaken for real labor. While you can start having Braxton Hicks contractions in the second trimester, they are more likely to happen in the third trimester. They are considered 'practice contractions' and actually prepare you for true labor. If you are in true labor, your contractions will be regular and intense. If you are having Braxton Hicks contractions, they will:

  • Be infrequent and irregular in intensity
  • Not become more frequent or intense
  • Be uncomfortable rather than painful
  • Ease up and eventually disappear

The Process of Baby Crowning

Your cervix must be dilated to 10 centimeters and effaced at 100 percent before crowning can begin. As you push during labor, it is normal for the baby's head to be visible at the vaginal opening but then retract back inside the birth canal when the contraction ends. Once the baby's head stays put at the vaginal opening, the baby is considered to be officially crowning.

How Does It Feel?

When the baby crowns, the skin and tissue at the vaginal opening stretches. This causes a burning or stinging sensation unless you have been given an epidural. This is often called the "ring of fire."

What Happens Next

Once you feel this burning/stinging sensation, you will be instructed to stop pushing. While it may be difficult to do so, this will lessen the risk of tearing or needing an episiotomy as your baby is delivered. After a short time, the burning and stinging will subside and you will then experience numbness. The pressure of your baby's head will actually numb the nerves in your vagina which act as a type of natural anesthetic as you deliver your baby.

How to Fight the Urge to Push

The urge to push can be overwhelming, but until your doctor, midwife, or nurse gives you the okay, you should try to fight that urge. Make sure that your birthing partner helps you through this process.

  • Try to relax the muscles of the perineal floor (the muscles that are located between the rectum and the vagina).
  • Relax your entire body as much as possible.
  • It is important to rely on deep breathing patterns and techniques to help you focus on relaxing.
  • At this time, you should allow the contractions to help guide your body through the birthing process.

Delivery of Your Baby

Once your baby begins to crown, the hardest part of labor is usually over. The baby's head will emerge and afterward the rest of the baby's body should deliver easily and relatively quickly. If you have any questions or concerns about this process, be sure to discuss them in detail with your doctor or midwife.

What to Expect When the Baby Is Crowning