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Does the pushing during labor seem a bit scary?

Find out what it is really like to push during labor and how to do it effectively to avoid tearing and get your baby out quickly and safely.

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I had seen all these faked birth sessions in movies with the moms screaming and pushing like crazy – and the midwives screaming at the same time! Not very tempting. Actually quite scary!

Before giving birth for the first time, I wondered how in the world I would know when and how to push during labor. (I also wondered how it would be possible to give birth without being torn into pieces… – yes, I was worried before I started to learn about the birthing process!

Since I am a researching kind of girl, and I was ordered bed rest for the last three months of my first pregnancy (read my pregnancy diaries here), I had plenty of time to read up on and practice relaxation as well as how to push during labor. So when the time came, I was quite prepared, and it worked well! (It worked even better with my second child.)

So what is it like to push – really?

In this post, I try to describe what it feels like to push, how you’ll know when it is time to push, and how to push effectively to avoid tearing and get your baby out quickly and safely.

How To Push During Labor The Conscious, No-Panic Way

The Second Stage Of Labor: Time To Push

Before going into details on how it feels, let’s get into some basic facts.

The pushing is the very last thing that happens during childbirth, but it is still called the second stage of labor. It is the stage when the baby is pushed through the birth channel and comes out into the world. The placenta comes after (this is the third stage of labor), but honestly, I don’t even remember it coming out; I had a baby in my arms by then. So the pushing comes last. :-)

You’ll find more information about all the stages of labor here.

It is also the stage of labor that is by far the shortest before the baby is born. This stage can last up to a few hours for a woman who gives birth for the first time. For those giving birth the second or more time, the pushing stage can actually be as short as 10 minutes.

What Triggers The Pushing?

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In movies, the midwife yells PUSH, PUSH, and the mom starts pushing.

In real life, it is (or at least should be) the baby’s position that will trigger the pushing in most cases. So, the urge to push actually comes naturally from within you.

Then sure, a good midwife or doula will help you and let you know if it is time to push or not because, quite often, they will want you to wait for a little to help the skin around your vagina adapt and thereby avoid being torn.

But it is your body that will signal when your baby has reached low enough in the birth channel, which triggers the pushing urge.

It is a bit spooky, especially the first time when, suddenly, your body starts doing something completely different from what it has been doing for the past hours during the contractions.

Instead of the waves of labor pain comes shorter downward pushing muscle signals. I didn’t understand what it was the first time it happened, but when it happened again, I realized it was the urge to push. Quite cool, actually! :-)

If and when you feel the urge to push, tell your midwife immediately! He or she can help guide you on whether to hold back or go with the urge depending on whether you are completely dilated and whether your skin needs more time to adapt to avoid tearing.

So What Does It Feel Like To Push?

what does it feel like to push during laborPinYou probably heard people say that the urge to push during labor is like needing to go to the bathroom. I disagree. Going to the bathroom is usually not very painful, and unless you really, really need to go now, the need to push isn’t nearly as strong as when giving birth.

The big difference compared to the contractions before the pushing stage is that you can’t fully relax while pushing (obviously), while you can and absolutely should relax during all other types of contractions. The pain is still there, but instead of signaling to you to breathe and relax your body completely, these contractions will urge you to tighten your stomach muscles and push downwards. It is a completely different feeling!

It does hurt, and it can be quite overwhelming to feel the head being on its way. But if you trust your body and the midwife and try to relax all other parts of your body other than your belly muscles, your baby really is about to arrive. Something to hold onto!

For some women, the pushing stage is actually a bit calmer than the last part of the dilation, which can be extremely intense. It is also common to experience a short (and sweet) calm period with almost no contractions at all between the last part of the dilation and the pushing. The body seems to gather strength for this very last and very important part of giving birth.

How To Push Effectively?

This combination of pushing with upper abdominal muscles and relaxing further down is the key to effective pushing.

Just like during the rest of the labor, the pushing stage can be lived through in a more or less effective way. The less effective is to become stiff, scared, and tighten all your muscles, thereby literally working against the contractions. This will lead to a longer pushing phase, more pain, and a higher risk of tearing. It also puts your baby at a higher risk.

Or you could really try to relax the muscles in your pelvic floor and envision yourself blowing out a candle with some force. Those are the muscles you should use while pushing. (Not the same at all as the ones used when going to the bathroom!)

Read the above sentence again. This combination of pushing with upper abdominal muscles and relaxing further down is the key to effective pushing. It can take some practice to be able to do this, especially while in pain. So practice how to push during labor beforehand! Many times. And ask your hubby to remind you.

It is also your choice whether to hold your breath or breathe out (like slowly blowing out the candle) while pushing. Both methods work, but if you hold your breath, only do it for a few seconds to avoid reducing the oxygen available for your baby.

The pushing stage will go faster and be easier if you stay in an upright position (or at least NOT lie down on your back.) Lying on your side is OK too. (For more details on effective birth positions, read this article.)

What If I Don’t Feel The Urge To Push?

True, some women don’t ever feel the urge to push.

Epidural is often a reason for this. These times, the doctor may want to wait you out if your baby is doing fine and see if the urge comes, or speed up the process by providing medication and directing you to push even without the urge. (This is called directed pushing.) Before accepting to push without the urge, make sure you ask why.

Spontaneous pushing (as opposed to directed pushing) has been shown to provide more oxygen for the baby, better APGARs, and less trauma of the pelvic floor for the mom. So, unless your baby is at risk, waiting for your body’s signals to push can have real benefits.

Both WHO and the American College of Nurse-Midwives (ACNM) recommend spontaneous pushing these days due to the benefits for the baby and mom.

Spontaneous Pushing Video

This video explains the benefits of spontaneous pushing using an upright position. (YouTube recently decided that the video is age-restricted, and you need to click the link to view it on YouTube. It will open in a new window.)

Get Upright and Follow Urges to Push - Step 5 of 6

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If you have any thoughts, experiences, or questions, please comment below!

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Leave a Reply

This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Nicole

    Lots of women don’t give birth (or parent with a man). Would you consider saying “birth partner” instead of “hubby” in your posts in the future to be more inclusive?

    1. Paula Dennholt

      Hi Nicole, of course! Thanks for the suggestion, I ‘ve changed it. :-)

      Best, Paula

  2. Paula @easybabylife

    Hi Tia,
    I saw your message, but your question is so important, so I’ll answer here. (Tia asked if it wasn’t very scary if it was painful to give birth, and how painful it actually was for me, personally.)

    To be honest, it was definitely extremely painful to give birth, but it was still OK. I guess sounds odd, but once I learned in more detail WHY it hurts I wasn’t scared anymore and therefore the pain was endurable. You can read about labor pain and what causes it here:

    Another this that helped a lot is that I took one class to learn breathing and relaxation and another class together with my husband, where he learned how to support me (with the right kind of massage, for example) and we also learned how to cooperate as a team during birth. I didn’t do that until prepping for our youngest, and I really wish we had done the first time. It made the birthing experience one of my experiences in life despite being crazy painful.

    I did use some pain relief, though – laughing gas. But that was all.

    I hope this helps!