Remember in the old movies when the pregnant woman is in labor and she’s sitting there, calm as a cucumber because she’s doing her quick “hee, hee, whoo’s?” Anyone can get through their labor with these simple little breathing patterns, right? (*Did you see my dramatic eye roll?)
There are right and wrong breathing techniques for labor. They must also be used simultaneously with other physical and mental relaxation methods in order to be effective. You cannot expect to get through your labor by just remembering to breathe. But you certainly won’t be able to get through it well without doing it properly either.
Right And Wrong Breathing Techniques For Labor
Our lungs take the oxygen in the air and attach it to the hemoglobin in our blood so that it can be carried to all parts of our body. Without oxygen, our bodies can’t function properly or metabolize energy. If we have too little oxygen, our body causes us to faint or pass out so that any little supply left can head to the brain, the controlling powerhouse of our body trying to save us from the lack.
Without enough oxygen, your muscles will not be able to contract and relax adequately during your labor. This leads to cramping and more unnecessary pain while your uterus tries to do its job. Many times our muscles stay tense and tight because they lack oxygen to be able to relax efficiently too. Thus another reason to breathe correctly so that you can relax well.
There Are Different Types
So now you understand why breathing is important, but did you know that there are different kinds?
Try this: sitting up straight, breathe so that your shoulders raise up and you feel tightness in your chest. Do it through your nose and then your mouth. You’ll feel differences even from what source your air comes in.
Now try this: breathe deeply so that your belly expands down and outward, through your nose and then your mouth. Which one felt easier and more relaxing?
Belly breathing allows your lungs to expand down into your abdomen because your muscles are relaxed and allowing the movement. When you’re breathing upwards in your chest, those abdominal muscles aren’t relaxed, blocking the downward movement. Try the belly breathing again but curled forward as if you were protecting your bump, and then sitting up fully and reclining back a little. Which was easier?
Allowing the trunk of your body to open up also increases the room available for your air to fill your lungs. Did you notice that you could take in more through your mouth? If your pregnant, it’s likely your nose is a bit congested too, making it more difficult to breathe nasally. The source of intake for your air is a matter of consideration, plus the patterns and speed of your breathing.
Now try these for a minute: just breathe deeply, calmly and slowly but consistently. Relaxing? Now take quick breaths as if you’ve just finished running a mile. Conflicting?
When labor contractions begin, your natural reaction may be to breathe quickly because it’s nerve-wracking and you may be scared about what’s coming.
I completely understand; I did the same thing with my first baby. Yes, I had done all my exercises beforehand, but I had to remember how to control my breathing so that I would get on the proper path for my body. I don’t believe I hyperventilated, but I was inhaling too quickly still so that I had too little carbon dioxide in my blood and my limbs went tingly.
My nurse had me hold the oxygen mask to my face for a little while, not for increased oxygen, but so that I could inhale the carbon dioxide I’d just lost. This helped restore my blood content levels and the tingling went away so that I was more able to focus on relaxing.
Hyperventilating is NOT what you want to have happen while you’re going through your labor. It reduces your oxygen supply to your baby (hence the reason many mothers in labor have oxygen masks put on), OR increases your blood pH, which brings on a bout of others symptoms you don’t want to be dealing with.
If you are nervous this may happen to you, bring a paper bag with you in your Labor Goody Bag. If you find you need help calming your breathing rate, breathe into your paper bag and have your husband go over your relaxation techniques with you so that you can move forward. Your nurse will also have an oxygen mask handy if it’s needed.
I learned about a variety of different breathing patterns through a Lamaze class. But honestly, I never used them during both of my births and I’m not planning on ever using them at all. Why? Because I feel that they’re mainly a distraction from your labor. This is a physical and mental conflict that I don’t agree with.
But one thing I do think is useful about the Lamaze breathing is that it does help you keep your breathing consistent and can reduce the chance of hyperventilation, to a point.
There’s a variety of speeds and patterns during the length of a contraction that a course may teach you. I’m not going to go into all those details.
I remember in my class, the instructor would draw a graph indicating a contraction over time. Then she’d draw on top of it the quantity of breaths in and out in a wave pattern. She had different names for the speeds which I don’t remember now. But it honestly was confusing.
The most complex way was having my husband hold up his hands in front of me. His one hand correlated to my breathing in with a “hee” sound and his other hand indicated for me to use an outward “who” sound. So we’d be breathing in and out and in and out based upon what fingers and hands he held up.
Ladies, I was so annoyed trying to just watch his hands and get my ‘sounds’ just right that I knew it wasn’t going to work for me. The very idea of trying to concentrate so much on just watching what my husband was doing while I was in labor was ludicrous to me.
But if you take a Lamaze course and find that the breathing patterns are helpful to you, then that’s great. They do benefit some mothers. Just be cautious when you’ve come to the quickest breathing pattern. It really is too fast for what oxygen and relaxation levels you need in order to find calm during your labor.
Low & Slow
If you haven’t figured it out yet, the best way to breathe during your labor, let alone life, is deeper into your belly, slowly and consistently. When I say slowly, I don’t mean an inhale or exhale that lasts longer than 3 seconds or so. Much longer will still rob you of much-needed oxygen because you can’t fill up with as much air as a non-pregnant person can.
Make sure that you’re abdomen is relaxed so that you can expand downwards where there is more room, believe it or not, than upwards into your chest. Resting your hands onto of your belly just under your breasts will help you feel the motion.
Breathe through your mouth so that you can get the most volume out of each breath. Yes, your mouth will become a bit dry and parched over time, but your husband is there with your ice chips, popsicles and chap stick to relieve that.
So to remember:
- Sitting up slightly reclined, resting; or laying down comfortably
- Keeping your body open and not compressed
- Open your mouth and rest your hands on your belly to feel
- Breathe low and slow, consistently
It may feel a little abnormal at first, down into your belly because your little one is already taking up so much limited space. But when your abdominal muscles surrounding him or her are relaxed and oxygen is flowing to those muscles adding to your relaxed state, they are much more comfortable too.
Breathing exercises may sound to simple, silly, or just downright a waste of your time. But I promise you that doing so will set yourself up for a better experience through your labor. If listening to relaxing music will help you breathe easier, then by all means! I have a great selection of music for you, here.
Just remember that breathing the right way is also breathing better for your baby. They rely on you for EVERYTHING; make sure they get sufficient levels of oxygen for functional growth. Better breathing will also provide you with natural pain relief, another plus for your experience.