Breathing for Labor

Breathing Techniques for Coping With Labor Pain

Couple breathing in practice for labor
Photo © Getty Images

If you take a childbirth class, a skill that you will likely learn is how to breathe during labor. One of the most well-known examples is "Lamaze breathing," which has been around since the 1960s. Today, it's just one of many breathing methods that are taught. If you take a birthing class, you will probably learn about several of the techniques that came after Lamaze.

Any breathing method you choose to learn can help you cope with the emotional and physical ups and downs of labor. Here is a look at a few common breathing techniques that can relieve pain and help you relax during labor.

Breathing Awareness

One of the first things you will learn is how to become more aware of your breath. In addition to childbirth classes, breathing awareness is also used in yoga classes.

To use this technique, sit comfortably and place one hand on your chest and the other on your belly (under your belly button).

Get into a comfortable position and close your eyes. Focus on your breath. Find your natural, relaxed breathing pattern (it doesn't matter if you breathe in and out through your nose, mouth, or both).

Noticing your breath and paying attention to it can have a calming effect. It might also help if your partner or doula goes through this exercise with you.

Cleansing Breath

A cleansing breath (or greeting breath) can work wonders during a contraction. This type of breath can serve as a signal to yourself (and others) that your focus is about to shift fully to the impending contraction.

Learning how to breathe slowly and deeply can help you avoid hyperventilating, which can happen if you are stressed, anxious, or in pain.

Start by taking a long, slow, deep breath in and slowly blowing it out. Some people find that doing this twice as the contraction is starting helps them focus on it.

You can also use this breathing pattern with conscious relaxation to enter a more restful state between contractions. With this technique, you focus on releasing the tension in your muscles.

It can also be helpful for your partner or doula to be on the lookout for signs that you are tensing up without being aware of it (for example, you are clenching your teeth or fists).

Cleansing breaths can be used alone or with other relaxation techniques and breathing methods.

Patterned Paced Breathing

Patterned paced breathing (also called conscious controlled breathing) can have different meanings and uses. In general, the levels of breathing vary in depth, duration, and speed to correspond to the rise and fall of a contraction.

Some people like having a specific way to breathe because it can be a form of distraction during labor, but it's OK if you find it too restrictive or difficult to follow.

Patterned breathing can be a slightly faster version of your own natural breathing rate. You can also use a slower rate and throw occasional sighs or vocalizations to release tension (which can be planned or spontaneous).

This technique will look and sound different for everyone. You might try breathing normally for a few seconds, then releasing an "ah" every few breaths. You could also breathe normally and allow yourself to make whatever noise feels right in the moment.

You might recognize this style of breathing as the classic "hee-hee-hoo" pattern that is often seen in childbirth scenes from TV and in the movies. The pant-pant-blow method was popularized by Lamaze classes but has since been adapted to other techniques.

While it might feel a bit silly, the words or vocalizations are meant to be rhythmic and comforting. After a cleansing breath, continue to breathe while saying the words (ah, hah, hee, hoo, or whatever else you come up with) until the end of the contraction. Then, finish with another cleansing breath.

You might decide that you'd rather use numbers instead of words, or have your partner or doula count you through the breathing pattern you choose. However, if you have someone else count with (or for) you and find that it's not helping (or it becomes annoying), that's OK!

Just because you planned to use a technique does not mean you have to stick with it if it's not working.

A Word From Verywell

Even though you already know how to breathe naturally, you might find it beneficial to hone your breathing skills and learn new techniques that could help you through your labor. You can use your breathing to increase and direct your focus, as well as relax your body and release muscle tension.

Try different breathing methods throughout your pregnancy and keep track of the ones that appeal to you. You can also involve your partner, doula, or other support people who will be present when you give birth.

You can make a list of techniques that you want to use during labor and even make them an official part of your birth plan. Just remember that you can always change your mind. You might be surprised by what feels "right" to you when you are actually in labor. Try to stay open and don't be afraid to speak up and ask for what you need.

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