Breathing During Labor & Birth: What You Need to Know


If you’ve ever heard of Lamaze, chances are you’ve also heard that they are the “breathing” childbirth education group (hee-hee, hoo-hoo). Over the years, however, Lamaze has evolved into a comprehensive approach to childbirth, part of which includes comfort measures for labor; breathing is just one of the suggested comfort measures. So what does it mean to “breathe” during labor? Here’s a little on what you should know (excerpted from The Official Lamaze Guide: Giving Birth with Confidence by Judith A. Lothian and Charlotte DeVries):


Breathing in Pregnancy:  A Daily Check-in
Finding the time, energy, and peace to face your fears—or do anything that requires mental focus—is a challenge in our culture. One pregnant woman shared that after years of working at her office, she’d tuned out the sounds of phones ringing and computers clicking. She didn’t even notice how noisy her office was until an older coworker looked at her across the bank of desks and said, “You’re bringing this child into a world of sounds my babies never heard.”


It’s true: In just a decade or two, technology has changed the world dramatically. From cell phones to ATMs, from microwave ovens to Facebook friends, from high-definition DVDs to iPods, technology fills our days with vivid images and messages. It’s a noisy, busy world that can crowd out the peace we need to connect with ourselves.


Connecting with yourself is an important task during your pregnancy.  It’s a big job to pay attention to all the physical, emotional, and spiritual changes you’re experiencing. It takes concentration to envision a future that includes a new role and a new person. Finding a place of stillness for a few moments each day can help you do this crucial work.


Even if your space and your schedule are crowded, you can find a place and time to keep a daily appointment with yourself. Perhaps you can retreat to the corner of your bedroom, the bathroom, a closet, or an empty room at your workplace. Perhaps you can sneak a moment before others wake up, after they’ve gone to bed, before you get in the shower, or during your lunch break. You might want to “check in” at the same time each day so you treat this appointment with yourself as the important time it is.


Your daily check-in may be a few moments of silence, meditation, or prayer. You can use this time to get in touch with not only your feelings, but also your body and the little one who is taking up more and more of it. Close your eyes for a moment and listen to your breathing, then take an inventory of yourself: Are there any tense areas in your body—neck, shoulders, throat, hands, back? Is anything nagging at your mind? Doing a full-body and -mind check will help you identify what needs to be released, relaxed, or dealt with.


Breathing Benefits from Yoga Practice
Yoga, an ancient form of exercise that includes breath control, meditation, and body postures, has become popular among pregnant women. It’s easy to understand why: Many yoga exercises include movements that open the pelvis. Yoga also teaches rhythmic breathing, concentration, stamina building, and relaxation. Some women who do yoga report improved physical coordination and more balanced emotions.


Lamaze Classes and Breathing
Lamaze classes prepare women for a safe, healthy birth by providing the most current, evidence-based information about birth, simplifying birth, and helping women navigate the maze of modern obstetrics. Be wary of “Lamaze” classes that spend a lot of time practicing relaxation and breathing and little or no time building your confidence or discussing how to keep things simple and how to have the safe, healthy birth you want in the birth setting you have chosen.


Breathing: Finding Comfort in Labor
When allowed and encouraged to, a woman will naturally move, moan, sway, change her breathing pattern, and rock to cope with contractions, eventually finding the right rhythm for her unique needs. Such active comfort-seeking helps her baby rotate and descend and helps prevent her labor from stalling. As her contractions get stronger, her body releases endorphins—nature’s narcotic—to ease her pain.


Conscious Breathing
Conscious breathing (especially slow breathing) reduces heart rate, anxiety, and pain perception. It works in part because when breathing becomes a focus, other sensations (such as labor pain) move to the edge of your awareness.


Conscious breathing is an especially useful labor tool because it not only keeps you and your baby well oxygenated, it’s also easy to learn and use. It’s naturally rhythmic and easy to incorporate into a ritual. And best of all, breathing is the one coping strategy that can’t be taken away from you—even if you’re stuck in bed attached to an electronic fetal monitor and intravenous fluids.


Conscious (or patterned) breathing used to be the hallmark of Lamaze childbirth education. For many women, it’s still an important way to stay relaxed and stay on top of their contractions. It’s true that conscious breathing can help you relax and feel less pain during contractions.  There’s no “right” way to breathe in labor, despite what others may tell you. Slow, deep breathing helps most women manage the pain of contractions. But the right way for you to breathe is whatever feels right to you. Issues like your number of breaths per minute, breathing through your nose or your mouth, or making sounds (like hee-hee) with your breaths are only important if they make a difference for you.


It may help you to have a visual focus to accompany your conscious breathing. You can recall an image with your eyes closed, focus on a picture or special object from home, keep your eyes on your partner, or simply stare at a spot on the wall. You may also find that as labor progresses, faster, shallower breathing—like a dog gently panting—feels better. You’ll figure out what works best for you. And what works best will probably change as you move through labor.


Many women “practice” breathing during pregnancy by using conscious breathing when everyday life presents stressful situations, like being caught in traffic, running late for an important meeting, or worrying about any number of things.


Find Your Rhythm
At some point in labor, you’ll “find your rhythm” or “get in a groove,” much like a marathon runner does. You’ll be living in the moment, doing without thinking.  To others you’ll appear to be in another world. Your movements will be rhythmic; you’ll relax between contractions; you’ll respond to contractions in the same way over and over again, perhaps shaking your arms, rolling your head, breathing slowly, chanting, or praying.


You’ll be totally focused, but you won’t necessarily look comfortable. You’ll look like you’re working very, very hard—which you are. When this happens, you’ll know endorphins are working their magic—dulling your pain and helping you ride your contractions intuitively. You’ll be doing exactly what you need to do. You won’t need to be rescued; in fact, the worst thing that could happen to you at this point is to be disturbed or interrupted. A healthy dose of encouragement, support, and respect are all you’ll need from your support team.


Do you have experience with conscious/patterned breathing during labor? How did it affect your birth experience?


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