It's become a cliche. During every Hollywood depiction of labor and delivery we see a woman panting her little heart out trying to figure out Lamaze as soon as her first contraction hits. We can imagine how light-headed that actress got just trying to look the part.
But breathing is a big benefit for labor and delivery. Finding the right breathing pattern can help a woman get through the pain and stress. It can give her strength and energy and allow her to power through to the moment when she will meet her baby. Women who have tried it all agree that it is a useful tool and a great practice to begin before the first contraction and later on in life as well.
From the Lamaze movement that caught hold a couple of decades ago to the Bradley Method and now the HypnoBirthing trend, a lot of women realize the benefits of taking control of breathing. The pace and pattern may vary, but the outcomes are all the same — an amazing labor experience that may be painful but is also powerful. The baby can even see some benefits, according to the experts.
Ever wonder how breathing affects labor outcomes? We've got your guide right here. Here are 15 explanations.
Breathing is a big deal during exercise. Any good personal trainer will talk to their charge about breathing while they weight train as well as during cardio and classes like yoga and pilates because breathing correctly can help the work out to go smoother and be more effective. Understanding that can help women who are looking toward labor and delivery.
Weight lifters are taught to use their breath to pace themselves, and they right kind of breathing can help give a rush of blood and oxygen to the muscles at the right time. Breathing can make or break a runner or a swimmer. And for anyone who does yoga or pilates, breathing is an essential part of finding a center and working through the movements and help her relax into a stretch.
The benefits can carry over into other parts of life, including the labor and delivery room. So pay attention to what the trainer teaches and think about how it will get you through.
One of the main things to know about how breathing affects labor is about finding the rhythm. There are many different kinds of breathing that can be beneficial — from the slow in and out that happens in yoga to the hee-hee-hoo that many have heard of from Lamaze.
It's called patterned breathing, and as long as there is a repeatable rhythm, it counts. It should be done in a comfortable rate so that a woman doesn't feel light-headed or dizzy, and it could change at different points during labor. But the rhythm is valuable because it gives the mom-to-be something to focus her mind on rather than focusing on the pain.
Creating a pattern takes a little bit of focus but not so much that it is impossible to do during the worst pains. It's all about the rhythm.
Everyone who has ever tried to lift a heavy box or a sofa or something knows that many times the automatic response is to hold your breath. It happens when you are straining, but as weight-lifters are taught, the better option is to continue to breath and control your breath.
Sure, sometimes, a major contraction can feel like a kick to the gut and it can take your breath away. But a woman needs to think past that because labor will continue for hours, and you obviously can't hold your breath that long. Instead, it's better to let your breath work with it.
Breathing brings oxygen to the body, and especially to the brain. And that benefits both the mother and the baby during labor and delivery. It can be a struggle, but fixing on a pattern will help.
One of the biggest benefits of patterned breathing during labor is it can give a sense of control in a situation where many women feel out of control. At the beginning, when the contractions are just starting to cause misery, a woman should start out with the good in and out. During early labor, that is often enough to get through the entire contraction.
Later on, when the contractions are longer and more intense, a woman can start to wonder what is going on and how she will get through. But if she returns to the patterned breathing, she knows that she can at least get that part and that can make her feel like she is in control of one part of her life — especially if she has to stay in bed or if things are starting to get out of control.
While some women want their husbands to help them with the breathing, for every woman it is a part that they have to do themselves and that their body isn't taking over. And that can make her feel more powerful when she needs it.
Even if a woman is planning on having an epidural, she usually has to go through the first stage of labor on her own. Yes, the contractions aren't as bad as they are going to get, but for some women they are still pretty intense. That is when slow, deep breaths can help. Moms can decide on a count like five or 10 and draw the breath in for a count of five and then out for a count of five.
Slowing the breath can help to draw more air into the lungs and that means more oxygen for the muscles. Slow breaths allow for the brain to stay active and for the mother to stay in the moment. Health care professionals advise people to take deep, slow breaths in many moments, including panic attacks, so it makes sense that they are useful in labor when a mother may be on the verge of a panic attack.
According to American Pregnancy, the act of patterned breathing brings purpose to contractions, and that can make the contractions more productive. Any woman who has spent 12 or more hours in labor will tell you that have more productive contractions is a very good goal.
The entire point of a contraction of the uterus is for the baby to move into position and for the cervix to thin and dilate. Without progress, it's just pain, and no one wants that. Long labors are like sitting in a pot of water that is just on the verge of boiling — for hours and hours, maybe even days. Like Jennifer Anniston in Friends, you just want to hear that the cervix is getting bigger, even though you know it will hurt, it means that there is a light to the end of the tunnel and the baby will be here soon.
It's enough to make any woman who has been sitting on 3 centimeters for 10 hours to start patterned breathing right away to get things going.
The American Pregnancy exposition also notes that patterned breathing gives strength and energy to the mother and the baby. That's because of the increased oxygen and blood supply that comes from deep breathing. It rushes to the muscles — including the brain and the heart — to give more power to the mom. That in turn goes to the baby through the placenta and give him or her a rush of energy to get through the ordeal of the birth.
Let's think about the times when a woman will need more energy. We can all say without a doubt that labor is probably at the top of the list. She has a lot of work to do and a lot of pain to get through. Some women deal with labor for up to two or three days before the baby is born, and often they can't sleep or eat through that time. Even the shortest labors of three or four hours can zap all of the energy a woman has. She'll need that for the pushing phase, so it's important to get the energy that can come through deep breathing and taking in oxygen. It can help her get through with the energy she needs.
As the labor progresses and the contractions get closer together, the mom's breathing will probably naturally get faster. It goes from trying to breath in for five seconds and out for five seconds to taking a quick inhale and exhale when the contractions are coming hard and fast.
In general, the breaths are more shallow and they come in through the nose and out through the mouth, usually with a little bit of a sound, like a "hoo." The rate can go up and down with the intensity of the contraction, starting slower and getting faster as the pain increases. Then as the contraction starts to ebb, the breathing slows back down as it gets back to a normal rate, two seconds, then three seconds, then eventually getting back to deep breaths. At the end you can take a few deep breaths to recharge the body and get that energy back.
Many moms and dads have heard of a different form of the accelerated breathing called variable or transition breathing. It's the kind that is always in the movies as a "hee-hee-hoo" pattern for women going through pretend labor. It's really a thing but it doesn't work quite that way for many women. It's basically about combining the accelerated breathing with the deep breathing in a way that can help a woman do what feels natural while organizing things so that there a pattern.
In American Pregnancy, they recommend doing a series of accelerated breaths followed by a few longer, deeper breaths. It could end up sounding a bit like "hee-hee-hoo." But it's important to focus on the intake of the breath as much as the exhale. The intake is what brings in the oxygen and gives the strength and energy, remember, so it's important to add in a few deep breaths so that she doesn't get light-headed or out of breath. A woman can mix it up, but she still has to make sure that however she breathes she is sure to get enough air to power through.
While Lamaze has more name recognition, the Bradley Method is taught in more hospitals these days. It's a breathing technique that is built on the variable breathing idea and it has a coach or husband help a woman be sure to focus on the breathing exercises.
There are a lot of components to the Bradley Method — everything from nutrition and exercise during the pregnancy to prepare for a natural delivery. But in the actual moment of labor, the coach helps a woman to focus on her breathing and encourages her to remember that her body is doing the work and she needs to feed it with air. In this method, the coach is the one who chooses the pattern for the breathing. He can change things when a woman starts to struggle so that her mind is on how to complete her task and how to make her body feel centered. In addition to classes, entire books are devoted to the subject, and more information is available at bradleybirth.com.
The point about the breathing, all of the specialists agree, is that it can help reduce pain. That isn't to say that a woman won't experience pain — her uterus is contracting, her cervix is thinning and her body is going through all kinds of experiences, and there is little that can be done about that short of using medication. But the amazing thing is that breathing can improve things.
The emphasis is on a task at hand instead of just pausing and grinning and bearing it. Breathing through it gives a woman a distraction while giving her body a boost, and that allows the contraction to do its work while the woman is thinking about something else.
It's hard to measure how much a breathing can cut down on pain because all women experience pain differently. But some women swear that things improve when they start to take control of their breathing. It's worth a shot whether you are going for a natural birth or waiting for an epidural.
Just like the Bradley Method, Lamaze is about a lot more than just breathing, but that is the part that most people have heard about. According to Lamaze.org, the practice is about simplifying the birthing process and making women feel more confident in themselves and their ability to get through. The breathing method is a big part of that.
Lamaze encourages women to moan and change her breathing and motions to meet her needs at the moment. It describes those actions as "active comfort-seeking," which helps the labor to progress while helping the woman feel more comfortable. Being conscious of her breathing can help a woman to concentrate on one thing while relaxing and staying in the moment. The right way, the website stresses, is whatever feels right to the individual, but being conscious and intentional in the breathing is the key.
Hypnobirthing is the newest craze in preparing for an unmedicated birth, and like Bradley and Lamaze, it involves special breathing techniques to get through. The practice is about meditation and visualization, and like the others, finding the way that works best for the individual is about feeling confident and comfortable.
The breathing is intended to help a woman relax and use self-hypnosis that keeps her from giving over to the fear and pain that can be overwhelming during childbirth. It treats contractions like waves and through the breathing, a woman can put herself into a kind of trance.
Supporters say that hypnobirthing not only helps the mother get through childbirth but it benefits the baby, making her calmer and more present in general. It also can help ease the postpartum hormone surges, according to some, and help a woman avoid postpartum depression.
Any woman who has ever sweated through a yoga class knows that the best part is the last 10 minutes, when after working those muscles you lay out on your mat in corpse pose and concentrate on your breathing. A good yoga instructor will talk about relaxing each part of the body from the toes to the tummy to the shoulders to the face. Little by little, you can feel yourself relax until in the end you are breathing in and out and getting close to falling asleep. Then you leave the class feeling like everything is right with the world.
Those deep breaths do wonders for stress management — and stress management can be critical during labor and delivery. Childbirth is one of the scariest moments of a woman's life, and as the labor progresses, things can get even worse. If there are any complications, things can go totally off the rails. But if a woman keeps breathing through it, she can find her center and it can help her ride through the stress of the situation.
Whether a woman chooses Lamaze, Bradley, hypnobirthing or her own version of patterned or conscious breathing, she won't regret learning the skill. It's likely to help through the first stage of labor, although there is no shame in turning to an epidural if the pain is still too intense.
And while it may only seem like it is good for one day — a very important day or two, but just a very short period in life — the truth is that conscious breathing is a good skill to have for the rest of her life. It can help in getting through the worst most stressful nights with the baby and if she ever feels a panic attack coming on. Deep breaths can help her manage stress and feel better even in the worst of times, and accelerated breathing may work on other forms of pain relief.
Like a good yoga class or a great workout, the practice of conscious breathing can make getting through any day better, and we hope this has helped get you started on that journey.