Athletes understand the importance of the presence of oxygen in their body to fuel their muscles.
Long distance runners train their lungs as much as their body in order to improve their endurance. During an exercise class, the instructor will encourage breathing upon contraction of muscles. The entire foundation of yoga is based upon focused breathing.
Being an athlete my entire life has allowed me to develop a relationship with breathing, especially during yoga. The concept of labor breathing does not stray far from the breathing required in all other physical activities: focused, rhythmic and patterned.
Practicing, studying and understanding multiple labor breathing techniques during my pregnancy proved to be the most important tool I had throughout my labor and delivery.
It’s important to understand that during labor, a woman’s needs could be very different than what she anticipated. As a very affectionate and touchy person, I was sure that I would need constant massage and human contact during my labor. Not only did I refuse massage throughout most of the labor, many times I wanted to be alone.
There are many types of breathing techniques that can be studied in preparation for labor. Once the big day comes, one or none of these techniques may be beneficial to the laboring mother.
The American Pregnancy Association states that patterned breathing refers to the act of breathing at any number of possible rates and depths. While some women prefer deep, focused breathing that fills the diaphragm, others might prefer light breathing, filling only the chest. Using breath to focus on each contraction will relieve the pain, discomfort and anxiety while progressing the birth. If the mother can focus her attention and energy on her breathing, she will not only oxygenate the baby and her body but she will be able to take the focus off the pain of labor.
Marie F. Mongan outlines the importance of labor breathing in her book Hypnobirthing—The Mongan Method, 3rd Edition. Slow breathing (surge breathing) can be done throughout the pregnancy for relaxation purposes and during labor contractions. It requires the mother to envision an inner balloon filling up as she breathes in gently through the nose for as long she can and then exhaling through the nose directing the energy of the breath down while envisioning the balloon drifting away in the sky. J breathing (birth breathing) can be practiced while voiding the bowels, in and out through the nose. The mother is to breathe in short and deep, down behind the baby and “out” the vagina. The idea is to contract the stomach muscles on the out breath while using the energy of the breath to breathe the baby down and out.
In preparation for my own labor and delivery, I studied my hypnobirthing book and had trouble understanding J breathing but I ended practicing J breathing for the last 20 hours of my labor. Even though it’s meant for the pushing stages, I found it very relaxing and felt myself progressing when I would use it. Breathing behind baby made me feel like I was communicating with the baby in my birth process as well.
Prenatal yoga classes may be beneficial to some mothers as deep belly breathing is practiced throughout each class. Mothers are encouraged to breathe in deeply through their nose and out their mouth to cool the body. A relaxed mouth and loose lips are important as they are said to mimic the cervix. Clenching the jaw and pursing the lips may prevent the cervix and perineum from relaxing for dilation. Making a noise as the mother exhales or flapping the lips (horse lips) can provide relief from the pain of the contraction while encouraging the cervix to dilate.
I thoroughly despised the idea of horse lips during my prenatal classes. I would pretend to do it so the instructor wouldn’t think I was avoiding participation all while subtly rolling my eyes. Along comes the big day and I sounded like a horse on steroids that had never been fed! I’m sure my labor support people thought I was losing my mind, but it sure seemed to relax not only my cervix but my entire body. I would begin the horse lips at the peak of my contraction when my pain threshold was reaching its limit. The horse lips breathing not only provided pain relief, but it also gave me something to focus on. It’s not easy to make your lips vibrate like that, go ahead give it a shot and give the person next to you something to giggle at!
Lamaze breathing used to focus on counting the number of breaths in a minute and the duration of each breath was important (two short breaths in, one longer breath out or hee-hee-hoooo). The focus is less rigid during Lamaze classes now and the breathing is more focused on conscious (patterned) breathing. During the beginning of labor, breathing may be deep and slow and may transform into shallow and fast breathing as labor progresses.
Finding a rhythm during each stage of labor will not only provide the mother with a focus during each contraction, but it will also allow those supporting her to learn each rhythm and recognize when a contraction is coming. The rhythm will change throughout the labor and routines that are beneficial at the beginning of labor may become a nuisance during another stage. In my 40 hours of labor, my routine changed many times. The one thing that stayed consistent was my deep breathing.
The right technique for breathing during labor is whatever feels right. Breathing is a coping strategy that cannot be taken away from a mother in the birthing process. As interventions were suggested to me, I would breathe deeply before answering. Whenever a nurse entered the room, I would close my eyes and focus on my breathing. I rode each contraction relying on my breath to take me along the wave.
Breathing can allow a mother to internalize and focus her energy on bringing her baby safely into this world no matter how many distractions are around her.
I can proudly say that labor breathing was a major factor in my pain-medication-free birth!
Author: Jaimee Guenther
Editor: Katarina Tavčar
Photo: Author’s Own