Abdominal Breathing for Labor and Birth

A woman breathing in labor holding hands with partner
Photo © sarahwolfephotography/Getty Images

When you say the words "labor" or "childbirth," you might imagine a woman huffing and puffing her way through her contractions. This patterned, paced breathing is most commonly associated with Lamaze childbirth classes, although it is not taught in most childbirth classes, including Lamaze classes, these days.

Instead, most childbirth classes concentrate on deep, abdominal breathing. This form of breathing actually promotes relaxation. It also helps supply you and your baby with the most oxygen in labor.

This is a very natural form of breathing, so it is not difficult to master. The key is to watch your abdomen rise as you inhale and contract as you exhale. Doing so slowly will ensure good oxygenation of your blood and will begin to relax you without much effort at all. This type of breathing is the most important form of breathing for labor and birth.

Cleansing Breath

You may also hear people talk about a cleansing breath. This is a deep breath at the beginning or end of a contraction to help center your mind on the work of labor or to release any residual tension. It is also a good way to let those around you know that a contraction has begun or ended. It is simply a deep breath in and out. Sometimes you need to do this more than once to achieve the desired effects. You may also hear this referred to as the greeting or parting breath.

You can practice this type of breathing at any point throughout the day. Some people choose to practice with their partners just before bed, learning to add other forms of relaxation to the abdominal breathing. You might also try abdominal breathing at points in your day that you find stressful. Creating brief rituals that help you relax will serve you well in labor.

Once you get the hang of the deep abdominal breathing, you can use it in many instances, not just labor. This is a nearly perfect relaxation tool because it works well for almost anything that requires you to calm yourself. This is also a great technique to teach to children.

By Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH
Robin Elise Weiss, PhD, MPH is a professor, author, childbirth and postpartum educator, certified doula, and lactation counselor.