There are countless movies and TV shows that portray women in the throngs of labor “hee-heeing” and “hoo-hooing” themselves through contractions. Luckily, the days of that awkward, odd, and inefficient breathing technique are long gone. As a Lamaze teacher, I am often asked about the usefulness of that seemingly ancient breathing technique. How should one breathe for labor? The answer is simple: breath deep.
Deep breathing initiates the parasympathetic nervous system, also known as the “rest and relax” state. When the body is situated in this state, the heart rate slows down, intestinal and glandular activity increase, and the sphincter muscles relax. All of these occurrences support the body’s ability to birth more easily.
When a women’s breath is shallow, rushed, nervous and spastic, the body moves into the sympathetic nervous system, or the “fight or flight” response. The heart rate increases, adrenalin floods the body, and blood vessels constrict leading to increased blood pressure. NONE of these responses support a good birthing experience. On a scientific note, when the levels of adrenalin rise, the function of ocytocin, the hormone responsible for contractions, goes down. This makes the contractions space out, and consequently labor slows down.
When comparing the two, it seems obvious that for handling pain and relaxing the mind and body, a laboring woman should focus on the type of breathing that helps her body relax. Deep breathing it is! Now that that is decided, I recommend putting some time into practice it.
The typical response to pain or to an uncomfortable situation is to hold your breath, tense up and breathe shallowly. By practicing deep breathing, we are training ourselves to go against what our bodies naturally do. It will take some practice and conditioning to change these responses. Students begin every yoga class in a relaxed position. The body is propped up and supported well, the lights are low, and I instruct them through a relaxation exercise. I then ask the students to continue to focus on their breath- the quality, depth and relaxing nature. As we start to move into more active and challenging poses, I ask them to remember the breathing they established at the beginning of class and see if they can access it again I am happy to report that almost all students can shift their focus and find their deep breathing state. Once they do, their faces look more relaxed, their eyes soften, and their breath evens out.
Even though it sometimes takes some reminding to find deep breathing, the benefits are felt almost immediately. This is similar to the pattern of labor. Very few women can ride the sensations of the contractions without losing their breath or concentration at some point. If the laboring mother has practiced deep breathing techniques through her pregnancy, and there is a partner or doula present to help the mother get back on track, she can usually find her deep and calming labor breathing again.
Here are two exercises that you can practice at home to help you get acquainted with deep, belly breathing.
Sama vritti (even fluctuation). This is a pranayama (a breathing exercise) that focuses on making the inhalation the same length as exhalation. Assume a comfortable, supported position and start to inhale for 3 counts, and then exhale for 3 counts. If your mind starts to wander, simply take note and return to focusing on counting your breath. Once you feel comfortable with a count of 3, you can increase it to 4 or 5. But make sure the inhale and exhale are even in length.
Deep Belly Breathing. Deep belly breathing is thought to be the best way to oxygenate and relax the body. Breathing deeply into the diaphragm brings energy to the Solar Plexus, the chakra that governs ego, emotions, and intellect. This technique is also one of the most useful for pregnant women to focus on since it cultivates relaxation and strength- a useful tool for labor, delivery and motherhood!
Just like in the Sama Vritti pranayama, find a comfortable, supported position and start to focus on breathing deeply through the nose (if it is not too stuffy), expanding your abdomen fully. Slowly and completely exhale through your nose, gently pulling your abdomen in so that all the air is released before taking another full belly breath. See if you can maintain this pattern of breathing for 5-10 minutes. If you get confused about what this breathing style looks like, look at a baby sleeping, they naturally engage in this type of breathing.
When in doubt, keep breathing! Happy birthing ☺
* All photos provided by Sarah Merians Photography.