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Breathing for Labor and Delivery: Strategies that Work

Katlyn Joy | 9, August 2011


Breathing for Labor and Delivery: Strategies that Work

Gone are the days of complicated textbooks on how to breathe through every stage of labor, with absolute right and wrong ways and confusing patterns. The idea previously was to train mothers how to do precise breathing patterns and make her concentrate on breathing in ways not natural to her. The rationale was that by occupying her thoughts so thoroughly with the activity would lessen her focus on her discomfort or pain during labor or birth. Today the emphasis is on relieving pain, increasing relaxation and not overwhelming the mother but rather using natural patterns of breathing to her advantage.

While most laboring women elect to have an epidural for pain relief, actually up to 80 percent of them, breathing techniques are still a powerful aid during this intense time. Breathing can be a method of self-hypnosis, and is known to lower anxiety levels in women during childbirth. It is has the benefit of increasing oxygen levels, a real plus during the strain of labor for both mother and child. Breathing techniques properly employed will also lessen nausea and dizziness during labor.

According to a 2001 Journal of Perinatal Education article by Brown, Douglas and Flood women reported breathing techniques as the most effective at relieving pain during labor followed by relaxation, acupressure and massage.

Preparing to Breathe

Many times couples are taught different breathing techniques as part of a childbirth class taught by staff at the hospital the expectant mother will deliver at. However, some couples opt for a specific birthing technique such as Lamaze or Bradley methods and attend at an independent location. Other couples may rent or purchase childbirth classes on DVD or read books on the topic.

No matter where the methods are learned, practice will help a great deal when the big day arrives. Not worrying about, "Now what am I supposed to do?" but being prepared will ease much anxiety. Anxiety is known to increase pain, so preparing by practicing those breathing patterns will lesson labor discomfort. In most cases, women will utilize relaxation techniques alongside breathing patterns to help with labor pain.

Cleansing breath
This is a deep breath that mimics a sigh and should begin and end all contractions. This breathing technique is borrowed from yoga, and is meant to release tension.

Slow breathing
The breathing technique used most often is slow breathing. This is a good strategy for early but intensifying labor. When walking is no longer adequate in relieving pain it's time to try for these steady slow breaths. Inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth with a sigh, releasing your tension. Feel your tummy to make sure you are deeply breathing. Aim for about half as fast as your normal breathing rate. You may want to focus on a picture, a point in the room or even your labor partner's face during these breaths and the contraction.

Lightly accelerated breathing
This breathing pattern is useful during active labor when slow breathing just doesn't seem practical or possible anymore. You want to change up your breathing to a quicker speed rather than your natural urge to hold your breath which will increase tension in your body and therefore your discomfort. Breathing in and out through your mouth, about every second, keep the breaths light and shallow. During more intense contractions, you'll naturally speed up those breaths.

Transition breathing
Transition is that tricky stage of labor which is the most intense and thankfully the shortest. It is also the point where women often feel overwhelmed and exhausted. The pattern of breath is pant-pant-blow. The pant is a shallow breath while the blow is a focused exhalation where you will attempt to go limp as the breath leaves your lips.

When you are avoiding pushing
There are times when you may have a strong urge to push but your physician instructs you to hold off. Breathing like you are blowing out candles will help you avoid the pushing urge, at least temporarily.

Other Tips

Remember those cleansing breaths at the beginning and end of all contractions and breathing patterns.

It's normal to experience chapped lips and a dry mouth during breathing patterns in labor. Ask for ice chips, lip balm and brush your teeth when you can to lessen this annoyance.

Remember that breathing techniques used in isolation won't be as effective as when combined with other comforting techniques such as relaxation, massage, acupressure, aromatherapy, hydrotherapy or hypnosis.

Related Articles

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Labor & Delivery Photographers: A New Trend

Guided Imagery Exercise for Labor and Delivery

Understanding Labor and Delivery: A Parent's Primer

Preterm Labor & How To Avoid Preterm Labor


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