What Is a Forceps Birth?

Reviewed by Dan Brennan, MD on March 11, 2021

During your pregnancy, you begin to picture what your labor and delivery will be like. Many hospitals even help you outline a birth plan, so doctors and nurses know what your expectations are.

However, all births don’t go as planned or pictured. Sometimes doctors must use special tools to help facilitate your baby’s delivery. It is important to understand all of the possibilities, so you are prepared for whatever happens during delivery. After all, the end goal of delivery is a healthy mom and a healthy baby — no matter how you get there.

What is a Forceps Delivery?

A forceps delivery is named after the tool used to assist your baby’s progress during labor. In the second stage of labor (when it’s time to push), your doctor may use forceps to guide the baby’s head further into the birth canal. Forceps births occur in less than 1% of all deliveries.

This tool looks like oversized salad tongs, with pieces that are specially designed to gently hold your baby’s head for maneuvering. They are often used if the baby is showing signs of distress and labor is not progressing as quickly as your doctor would like.

Why Are Forceps Used During Birth?

The primary reason for using forceps is to prevent the need for a cesarean section (c-section). Specific reasons a doctor uses forceps include:

  • Your baby is experiencing fetal distress and needs to be delivered quickly
  • The doctor needs to reposition your baby for an optimal birth
  • Your baby gets stuck in the birth canal and isn’t moving further down
  • You’re having trouble pushing, delaying the progress of your delivery

Pros and Cons of a Forceps Birth


While the idea of a doctor using this large tool to reposition or move your baby can seem daunting, it has been done for decades. Forceps are a very safe way to ensure your baby is delivered without complications:

  • The doctor can reposition your baby, possibly preventing you from tearing during delivery
  • Your labor may progress faster
  • Pushing may be easier and faster than without the use of forceps


Many mothers desire an unassisted childbirth experience, meaning that they don’t want any drugs or tools that force labor and delivery. Plus, a forceps delivery is not without the possibility of complications.

If your baby’s delivery is particularly difficult, the forceps may cause:

  • Bruising
  • Bleeding
  • Temporary misshapenness of your baby’s head

While each of these conditions is scary for the mother of a newborn, most of the time, the results are temporary. Infants’ skulls are very soft, so they can fit through the birth canal and will heal within a few days or weeks following delivery.

Your child’s pediatrician may request follow-up appointments to ensure proper healing and development after a forceps delivery.

How Does a Doctor Use Forceps?

Forceps are not used until your body has progressed completely through the first stage of labor. Your progress is usually much quicker after the first stage as the baby moves down into the birth canal for pushing. But if progress is slow, your doctor may turn to forceps.

There are several criteria for a forceps birth:

  • You must have an empty bladder
  • Your cervix must be dilated to ten centimeters
  • Your bag of water should have already ruptured
  • Anesthesia will be applied locally unless you’ve already had an epidural

In between contractions when your body is relaxed, the doctor will insert the forceps one at a time, then lock them together. If your baby is face-up, the doctor will rotate your baby’s body to be face down for an easier delivery.

As you push, the doctor will assist your efforts by applying pressure to encourage your baby down further. Once your baby’s head is out, it becomes easier to push the rest of their body out.

Avoiding a Forceps Delivery

If you don’t want forceps used during delivery, talk to your doctor about other options ahead of time. They may have other tools or ways to help your body progress through labor without the use of forceps.

However, it is important to remember that the other option may be a c-section, which could be more difficult to heal from. Knowledge is power, and while you’ve outlined a birth plan with a “best-case scenario,” your doctor will make the best decisions for the health of you and your baby during birth.

Show Sources


CDC: “Diagnosis of Hemophilia.”

Kid’s Health: “Birth Plans.”

What to Expect: “Forceps Delivery.”

Women’s Health: “Body changes and discomforts.” 

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