Deep breathing for Labour

One of the great things about doing prenatal yoga is that you can learn how to appreciate and use the power of your own breath. Rhythmic breathing during labour maximises the amount of oxygen available to you and your baby and breathing techniques can help you cope with contractions. Deep breathing during pregnancy also helps with insomnia, tension and anxiety.

Most of the women I have taught in my pregnancy yoga classes have told me after the birth that it was the breathing that pulled them through. Some had epidurals and used the breath in the early stages, some had natural deliveries and used it as the sole form of pain relief, others had unforeseen events like failed epidurals or emergency c-sections and used the breath to pull them through.

Even if some of the techniques seem strange when you practice them, in labour they can suddenly feel completely natural. Learning how to use your breath is a gift that you can use forever at any stage in your life and will help you with many things long after labour.

Advantages of breathing techniques:

Relaxes the body

When you are tense and frightened, your breathing becomes shallow and rapid. Your shoulders are pulled up towards your ears and your neck and shoulder muscles feel tight and rigid. If you move into a state of panic, you start over-breathing, sucking the air into your lungs and breathing out in short, sharp gasps.

Panic breathing cuts down on the amount of oxygen you take in for yourself and for your baby. You feel light-headed and out of control. Your body will tire quickly in this state.

Calm rhythmic breathing can help you conserve energy in labour, keep stress levels lower and relax the muscles.

Expands breathing capacity

Learning deep breathing and becoming aware of your breath helps to expand your breathing capacity. This helps you to take deeper breaths in labour. It can also open up space in the thoracic area, making room for two to breathe as the baby grows towards your ribcage.

Relaxes muscles used for birth

Deep and long exhalations can relax the muscles during labour and help the birth. This is particularly effective when you direct the breath down into the pelvic floor using the breath to open the area.

Leads to better focus

Learning breathing techniques is a type of mediation that can really improve concentration and focus for labour. At times in your labour it really helps to take your awareness outside of what is going on in your body and to steady your mind. Prenatal yoga offers various visualisation breathing techniques (see below) that can help do just that.

Tones abdomen and pelvic floor after birth

Although exercise is not advised until after the first 6 to 8 weeks after labour, you can practice deep breathing directed into the abdomen and pelvic floor muscles. This helps to tone these areas.

Breathing techniques

Breathing techniques can be very enjoyable and calming throughout pregnancy. Aim for 5 to 10 minutes a few times a week. Before bed is particularly effective to help you relax. You can lie on your side or back with pillows under the head and shoulders to keep the chest and lungs supported and open.

If you are seated, use a chair with good back support and keep your head upright, shoulders relaxed and the spine long. Or sit in a cross-legged pose, supported and against a wall if back is tired, or with the legs stretched out in front of you.

Remember:
Don’t feel you need to use any particular breathing technique or that you need to have a ‘breath plan’ for labour. Practice one or two techniques at home and choose one that works for you.

Don’t start focusing on breathing until you are well established in labour and you really need to. If you are very nervous, use the golden thread breath or blowing a feather breath to calm you down.

Deep breathing – relaxation, between contractions

This is a simple breathing practice to begin with. It helps you to become aware of your own breathing patterns and rhythms and it teaches you how to deepen your breathing.

  • Start by relaxing the lower jaw, shoulders and belly.
  • Take a deep, audible sigh, then quietly inhale through the nose and exhale through the mouth.
  • Keep your mouth soft and curl the lips in a gentle smile.
  • Do this for about 8 breaths noticing how slow and deep your breath can become.
  • Try to keep the inhalation and exhalation even.
  • Keep your focus on the exhalation. Let the body relax more as you exhale.

You can also use counting as a technique with this breath: Breathe in for 4 or 6 counts and out for 4 or 6 counts, whichever suits.

Ujjayi

A powerful technique, great for stress, use during labour, to defuse stress and fear. Ujjayi, a classical pranayama, is good for insomnia and panic. It also builds strength, soothes the nerves and lowers blood pressure. It is a very healing and profound breathing practice.

  • Breathe in and out of the nose while slightly constricting the throat creating a silent whisper sound.
  • As the breath moves in, gently contract the back of the throat (glottis), keep the contraction as you exhale.
  • Normally this is done through the nose but you can practice with inhaling through the nose and exhaling through the mouth.

Golden Thread

For labour, relaxes, focuses the mind, calms nerves

  • Breathe in through the nose.
  • Exhale from pursed lips and imagine a golden thread spinning across the room.
  • Feel the thread lengthen across the room from the mouth with each out-breath.
  • Keep the mouth, jaw and shoulders relaxed.
  • Allow your mind to focus on the sound, feel and visualisation of this golden thread.
  • Imagine a small soft feather between your thumb and index finger.
  • Gently blow it away through pursed lips.
  • Feel the cooling air through your lips on the exhalation.
  • Repeat as desired until you feel calmer and body temperature cools.

Blowing a Feather – visualisation for labour, cooling

  • Imagine a small soft feather between your thumb and index finger.
  • Gently blow it away through pursed lips.
  • Feel the cooling air through your lips on the exhalation.
  • Repeat as desired until you feel calmer and body temperature cools.

Breathing during contractions – keeps breath light, manages contractions.

  • Before a contraction starts, take a few deep breaths. Exhale down into the cervix.
  • Your breathing will become more rapid and shallow. Avoid hyperventilating or grasping for the breath.
  • Breathe throughout the contraction in whatever way feels right.
  • Follow your own natural rhythms and keep the breath light.
  • Pay particular attention to your out breath, imagine you are exhaling the pain out of the body.
  • Relax at the end of the out breath, and feel the in-breath come in naturally without effort.
  • Keep the mouth open when you exhale.
  • Visualise breathing down into the cervix, opening it with the breath.
  • Use sound if that feels right – whatever natural sounds emerge.

Breathing down towards the ground with breath or sound gives you more power during the contraction and can conserve more energy by preventing hyperventilation or panic. You may have four or five cycles of the breath per contraction. Rest completely before the next one, taking nice relaxing breaths.

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