Breathing Made Easy

New school breathing patterns that feel easy and natural.

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The Lamaze approach to childbirth prep— with its "hee-hee-hoo-hoo" breathing technique made familiar (and made fun of) in countless movies and TV shows— was a breath of fresh air for the 1960s and '70s natural childbirth movement. Today, an estimated 80 percent of American women receive epidurals during labor. So is breath training still relevant? Absolutely.

"Focused breathing is one of many valuable coping tools to use during labor," says certified childbirth educator Erica Lyon, author of The Big Book of Birth (Penguin). "It's self-hypnotic, decreases anxiety, increases oxygen intake and is available even when medication wears off or you're being rushed into surgery." But, have breathing techniques changed over the years? You bet. Here's how:

Old School

Lamaze required precise breathing techniques that most childbirth educators don't teach anymore, Lyon says. "Those require the mom to change her breathing patterns, which pulls her into the rational part of her brain and doesn't help labor progress," she explains.

New School

Lyon and other instructors are teaching a focused, easy-to-remember relaxation breath that's "rhythmic and repetitive and that you don't have to think about," she explains.

It's no longer about very precise breathing techniques that you have to "get right," agrees Linda Harmon, executive director of Lamaze International. "Many women find that focused breathing is a calming ritual, like prayer or rocking, that helps them manage contractions," she says. "It's just one of many strategies."

Lyon recommends learning breath work from an independent childbirth educator—someone who doesn't have a dogmatic agenda for how to get through labor. This may mean finding an instructor who's not affiliated with the hospital where you'll deliver. If you do go with a hospital- based course, make sure the instructor teaches a variety of coping strategies and a breathing technique that feels easy and natural for you.

Ask your doctor, midwife, doula and friends or search online for childbirth preparation courses in your area. Then practice throughout your pregnancy and get ready for your baby to take your breath away.