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What do babies feel during birth?

The birth of a baby is an amazing and intense process. As the baby makes its way through the birth canal, its body goes through dramatic changes and it likely experiences a range of sensations and feelings. Understanding what babies may feel during labor and delivery can help parents know what to expect and provide comfort to their newborn.

What sensations do babies experience during labor?

During the early stages of labor before the cervix is dilated, the baby is still protected in the amniotic sac of fluid inside the uterus. At this point, the contractions of labor create sensations of tightening and pressure as the uterus squeezes and relaxes. The baby can likely feel and react to these sensations, but they are not necessarily painful at this stage.

As labor progresses and the cervix opens, the amniotic sac bulges into the birth canal. The baby’s head often presses against the dilating cervix during contractions. This creates stronger waves of pressure and compression. The compression may be somewhat uncomfortable or alarming as the contractions increase in strength.

While inside the uterus, the baby is well-cushioned and protected from pain by structures called endorphins. However, toward the end of dilation as the sac ruptures, the buffering effects of the endorphins start to wear off. The increasing intensity of sensations becomes more difficult for the baby to handle.

What does the baby feel as it moves through the birth canal?

Passing through the narrow birth canal is likely the most stimulating part of the birth process for the baby. The squeezing pressure as it pushes out the vaginal opening and tight canal creates very strong tactile sensations throughout the body.

The head usually emerges first, followed by the shoulders one at a time. The compression on the head as it stretches the vaginal tissues is likely experienced as painful pressure. The body may feel both relief and further stimulation when the head delivers and the shoulders squeeze through.

During the final stage of delivery, the umbilical cord may wrap around the baby’s neck or another part of its body. This can create a choking or pinching sensation as it is squeezed by contractions. The cord is usually loosened quickly to relieve any constriction once the baby emerges.

Potential pain and stress

The considerable tactile stimulation of being born leads many experts to believe that babies do experience significant pain and stress during delivery. This is supported by studies showing that babies exhibit signs of stress including increased heart rate, blood pressure changes, altered stress hormone levels, and decreased oxygen levels when moving through the birth canal.

However, pain responses may be somewhat blunted by endorphins from the placenta crossing into the baby’s bloodstream during late labor. Babies born by C-section appear more alert compared to vaginally delivered babies that seem more dazed. This provides further evidence of pain and stress associated with vaginal birth.

Relief and euphoria

Despite the intensity of delivery, most babies show signs of almost immediate relief and euphoria in the first moments after birth. Gentle handling helps soothe any lingering discomfort. The joy of meeting caregivers face-to-face and nuzzling with a parent for the first time quickly outweighs any unpleasant memories from the birth process.

How can the birth experience affect babies?

While few adults can recall their actual birth, some theories suggest that the intensity of being born may influence a person’s personality and psychology later in life. However, most experts believe any potential impact is complex and small compared to other factors after birth.

Traumatic effects

Some believe an especially long, difficult, or traumatic birth could imprint painful memories that resurface later as unresolved subconscious fears or patterns. For example, anxiety disorders and claustrophobia have been theoretically linked to compression or oxygen deprivation during delivery.

Preterm babies that undergo intensive medical interventions for survival may particularly struggle with lingering effects of a stressful birth. Gentle handling and skin-to-skin contact helps mitigate adverse outcomes.

Positive imprinting

In many cases, the challenges of being born may provide useful preparation for handling future stressors and building resilience. With proper care and support, most babies thrive regardless of their mode of delivery.

A smooth, peaceful birth process in a stable environment can also imprint positive memories of safety and comfort. This may form the foundations for secure attachment and confidence as the child develops.

How can parents help their baby through the process?

While parents have limited control during the intrinsic process of labor and delivery, they can take certain steps to help their baby have the best birth experience possible:

  • Choosing an obstetrician and birth setting you trust.
  • Learning techniques like massage, warm baths, and relaxation for comfort during early labor at home.
  • Using positions and breathing during late labor to help descent and progress.
  • Delaying pushing until the baby’s head has properly descended into the birth canal.
  • Avoiding unneeded medical interventions when possible.
  • Holding, nursing, and staying close to your newborn after delivery.

These measures help the baby pace its own journey down the birth canal while providing reassurance and pain relief. Your support and advocacy during delivery models how your child can seek help during difficult times throughout life.

Stage of Labor What the Baby May Feel How to Help Your Baby
Early labor Rhythmic tightening and pressure during contractions as the uterus contracts and relaxes. Use positions like walking, rocking, or bathing to gently encourage descent.
Active labor Increasing pressure and some discomfort as contractions strengthen and the cervix opens. Apply massage, light touch, or warm compresses to provide comfort.
Transition Peak sensations of pressure and compression as the cervix fully dilates. Use breathing techniques and focus to manage the intensity.
Pushing & delivery Intense pressure and stretching as the baby moves through the vaginal canal and birth canal. Follow cues to push slowly and gently as the baby descends.
Immediately after birth Relief followed by euphoria after delivery stimuli subside. Provide skin-to-skin contact, nursing, and loving interactions.


Babies experience a variety of sensations including pressure, compression, stretching, and tactile stimulation as they make their way through the birth canal during labor and delivery. These sensations likely range from alarming to painful near the end of dilation and as the baby emerges through the vaginal opening.

However, euphoria typically follows quickly after birth thanks to endorphin release and the comfort of caregivers. While an intense birth may theoretically imprint memories, babies are remarkably resilient. With proper support, they can thrive regardless of the circumstances of their delivery.

Parents can provide reassurance and help babies cope by choosing birth settings wisely, using positions and techniques to ease the passage, and holding, nursing, and bonding with their newborn immediately after birth. This models caring through difficult transitions and builds secure attachment between parent and child.