Breathing awareness encourages deep relaxation and enables you to alter other aspects of your nervous system (decrease pulse and blood pressure) and gain more control over tension spots in your body. Deep breaths provide the uterus with plenty of oxygen (as fuel) to open up – without enough oxygen the pain receptors in the uterus become ‘noisy’ and ‘hyper-tense’. When you breathe deeply, you become calm and relaxed, oxygenate your uterus and your baby, decrease your pain and enhance the labour experience for yourself and your baby.
The more you practice breathing and relaxation, the quicker you can slip into it and use it successfully during labour. We all know how to breathe – but practicing it is important, because you are ‘training’ yourself to respond positively to contractions and not resist the ebb and flow of labour pains. Being aware of your breathing can help you to relax, reduce pain and create a mental distraction during difficult contractions.
Most people tend to use the muscles of the neck and shoulders when they breathe, instead of the deeper, stronger abdominal muscles. When you breathe from low in your belly, you can take deeper breaths than when you breathe from high in your chest area. Some women naturally breathe slowly and deeply, while others find less full breaths more comfortable. Rather than trying to force a particular pattern of breathing that may feel unnatural, you should find your own pattern of breathing to help you relax and feel comfortable. It is important to be aware of your breathing and how it changes during labour. Pregnancy is a wonderful time to develop breathing awareness. Apart from preparing you for labour, it can also help ease insomnia, poor circulation, breathlessness and many other discomforts.
Breathing with awareness
Try these exercises with or without a partner. Get into a comfortable position. You can stand, sit or lie down. Once you are breathing at a comfortable pace and level, keep breathing at that depth for a minute or two.
Try out different paces to find out what is comfortable for you. Place one hand (or your partner’s hand) on your belly, slightly above your navel, and one hand on your chest near the top of your breast. Notice how your breath rises and falls under your hands.
If you are breathing mostly into the chest area, try to breathe more into your belly. Do this for a while until you find a way of breathing that feels comfortable and restful. It may be easier to breathe through your mouth, although breathing through your nose may be more comfortable. Open your jaw slightly to release any sounds or sighs on the outgoing breath.
Think about the air flowing in and out of your body as you breathe. Be aware of the coolness of the incoming breath and the warmth of the outgoing breath, or imagine the inward breath as a light colour and the outward breath as a dark one.
Breathing during labour
Heightened awareness of breathing enables you to respond spontaneously to the challenge of labour and to feel more relaxed and comfortable. Your breathing will change throughout your labour, increasing when labour becomes more active.
Try to keep your breathing even and easy, even when this becomes difficult as your labour progresses. Take a slow, comfortable breath at the beginning of each contraction to help you focus and centre yourself, and alert your partner to the contraction. Try to breathe slowly throughout the contraction. As the pain intensifies you may tend to breathe faster and shallower.
Concentrate on breathing in a slow, controlled manner to help prevent panic, anxiety and breathlessness. Once the contraction is over, take a relaxing breath as if you were sighing to signal that the contraction is over, and let go of any tension that may have built up.
Keep breathing at a relaxed and easy pace between contractions to conserve energy and do not fight labour pains. Your breathing and relaxation skills will also keep you calm in the many challenging situations that motherhood brings.