It goes without saying that breathing is important. Yet, many laboring women forget the need to breathe well during childbirth. When the pain of the contraction grows, it’s common to either:
- Revert to short, rapid breaths that lead to hyperventilation, or…
- Decide to stop breathing entirely and instead hold your breath.
Either way, the end result is that neither you nor your baby is getting oxygen. So, let’s discuss effective labor breathing and why it matters for your birth experience. (Be sure to watch the video below to learn the most basic breathing technique, slow-paced breathing!)
What is Labor Breathing?
Labor breathing is when you breathe according to a set number of breathing rates and depths during the contractions of childbirth. This includes deep abdominal breathing and slow-paced breathing. It also includes more advanced techniques like modified paced breathing and patterned paced breathing.
Why Does Labor Breathing Matter?
Controlled labor breathing increases your oxygenation (3). If you start to hyperventilate or hold your breath–both common responses to pain–you’ll inevitably begin to feel light-headed. Likewise, the flow of oxygen to your baby will decrease, which eventually leads to alterations in the baby’s heart rate. When this happens, health care providers are likely to intervene in the labor process, possibly by applying an oxygen mask. Patterned labor breathing techniques help to keep the oxygen flowing for both you and baby without the need for intervention.
Labor breathing will also keep your muscles well-oxygenated and in tip-top shape. This helps provides strength and energy to perform the hard work of giving birth.
Labor breathing is a powerful way for a woman to gain a sense of control during a contraction. Contractions of the uterus are spontaneous, uncontrollable, and most often painful. Yet ironically, the most beneficial thing a woman can do to promote labor progress is to relax. Relaxing physically is an almost impossible task if you feel emotionally out of control. Breathing helps to bring purpose during the contraction by giving you something productive to do. It gives you a way to respond positively to the pain of labor and puts you in back in the driver’s seat emotionally.
Conscious labor breathing, especially slow breathing, is calming to you during the stress of birth. Studies have shown that paced breathing during labor helps to reduce a woman’s heart rate, anxiety, and pain perception (1,2). It helps provide an overall sense of well being.
Additionally, slow, deep breathing has been shown to increase body awareness and mindfulness — helpful skills as you work to establish rituals and get into a labor “groove” (3). Breathing often becomes a fundamental part of the comfort rituals many women use in response to labor pain.
Patterned breathing can be a positive distraction from the pain of labor contractions. It takes longer for the brain to register discomfort when it’s doing two things at once, like swaying and breathing to a rhythm, for example. By using labor breathing, you help to disrupt the intensity of the pain pathway that travels from the uterus to your brain.
When used in conjunction with deep relaxation, labor breathing has been shown to increase a woman’s pain threshold. The pain threshold is the level at which you recognize the presence of pain. So, when you are relaxed and staying focused on using a breathing technique, your contractions will be less noticeable and feel less painful than they would be otherwise. This is ultimately the goal of all coping tools in labor.
Where Can I Learn Labor Breathing?
When most people think about breathing techniques, their mind goes back to the old-school Lamaze techniques that their mom used. Unfortunately, despite their effectiveness, most modern childbirth classes don’t include patterned breathing in their curriculum. Many teach slow abdominal breathing but are unfamiliar with the more advanced techniques that are helpful during the late stages of labor. But don’t worry! Kopa Birth® is an exception to this and teaches all of the original Lamaze techniques.
Watch the video below to learn the first and most basic technique, slow-paced breathing.
If you’d like to learn more, consider enrolling in a Kopa Birth® local or online childbirth class. You will learn a wide variety of breathing patterns, including instruction on when to use each breathing technique in labor. Labor breathing is a key element in a safe, satisfying natural birth experience. So when the stress of labor mounts, don’t hold your breath! Remember to STAY CALM and BREATHE ON!
Kopa Birth’s online childbirth classes allow you to prepare for a natural childbirth from the comfort of your own home, 24/7. Enroll today in our free online childbirth class to learn more about preparing for a natural hospital birth.
(1) Lothian, Judith. (2016). Lamaze Breathing. Retrieved from http://www.lamaze.org/lamazebreathing
(2) Nichols, Francine H. (2000). Paced Breathing Techniques. From Childbirth Education: Practice, Research, and Theory.
(3) Lothian, Judith. (2011). Lamaze Breathing: What Every Pregnant Woman Needs to Know. Journal of Perinatal Education. Spring; 20(2): 118-120.