So what does it mean to “breathe” in labor and birth? Below is a summary, adapted from The Official Lamaze Guide: Giving Birth with Confidence by Judith A. Lothian and Charlotte DeVries.
>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, 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.
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.
A regular check-in practice can help you connect better with your body and needs, which will serve as a good foundation for using your breath in labor.
>In labor, when you have freedom and encouragement to labor as you feel, you may naturally move, moan, sway, change your breathing pattern, and rock to cope with contractions. Eventually, you’ll find the right rhythm for your unique needs. Such active comfort-seeking helps her baby rotate and descend and helps keep your labor moving. As her contractions get stronger, your body releases endorphins — nature’s narcotic — to ease pain.
>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 be used anytime, anywhere — 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, 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 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/support person, 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 people “practice” labor breathing while still pregnant 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.
>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.