Breathing: Finding Comfort in Labor
When allowed and encouraged to, a woman will naturally move, moan, sway, change her breathing pattern, and rock to cope with contractions, eventually finding the right rhythm for her unique needs. Such active comfort-seeking helps her baby rotate and descend and helps prevent her labor from stalling. As her contractions get stronger, her body releases endorphins—nature’s narcotic—to ease her 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’t be taken away from you—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 women, 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 women 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, 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 women “practice” breathing during pregnancy 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.
Find Your Rhythm
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. You won’t need to be rescued; in fact, the worst thing that could happen to you at this point is to be disturbed or interrupted. A healthy dose of encouragement, support, and respect are all you’ll need from your support team.
Do you have experience with conscious/patterned breathing during labor? How did it affect your birth experience?
Lamaze International, www.lamaze.org, promotes a natural, healthy and safe approach to pregnancy, childbirth and early parenting practices. Lamaze serves as a resource for information, based on the most current medical advice, about what to expect and what choices are available during the childbearing years. Giving Birth with Confidence is the Lamaze blog written for and by real women and men on topics related to pregnancy, birth, breastfeeding, and parenting. The Lamaze Push for Your Baby campaign provides expectant parents with the support and information needed to spot good maternity care and push for the safest, healthiest birth possible.