Conscious Breathing During Labor Keeps Your Labor Progressing and Your Head in the Game
When you think about breathing during labor, what’s the first thing that comes to mind?
If you answered “hee-hee-hoo” (rooted in Lamaze classes from years ago) you’re with the large majority of couples in my classes who give me that answer. Many of us think of that seemingly silly breath, yet what we know is that conscious, rhythmic breathing plays an incredible role in keeping labor progressing and keeping a laboring Mama's head in the game.
If you practice yoga, or have done tai chi, kung fu, or other meditative practices, you have had a taste of how mindful or conscious breathing can connect the body and mind. When you’re able to practice conscious control of the breath, you’re able to get “control” of the mind so to say, and help steer your thoughts and reactions towards calm and presence.
This is SO important during labor, as when we are experiencing the intensity of the contractions, our minds want to grab hold of that and judge it, avoid it, dislike it, and move away from it, which can actually hinder how labor progresses and create suffering in a laboring Mom. Mindful or conscious breathing can help Mama on both a physiological level and an emotional or cognitive level too.
The Physiological Benefits of Breath During Labor
Breath is the link between the mind and the body. Conscious, mindful breathing helps to let our nervous systems know that all is well, and gives the green light to the endocrine system to produce the hormones needed to keep labor moving and progressing.
Let’s think about it this way. If you have a bear chasing you - you’re breath is going to be fast, rapid or you might even hold it because you’re terrified. This will most definitely send signals to your nervous and endocrine system that you are NOT safe, get you or keep you in fight or flight (which is necessary b t dubs to help you survive this bear chasing you) and your body will produce all the necessary hormones associated with this stressful situation such as adrenaline, cortisol, and epinephrine.
These are NOT the hormones what we want flowing as our labor begins and progresses (note: as you approach later phases and stages, some of these hormones may be present and that’s to help you finish what you started when S*** gets real). But as labor begins and progresses, we want your body and your mind in as calm, cool and collected a state as possible. And calm, conscious breathing is what helps us get there.
Conscious breathing as compared to bear breath lets our nervous system know that we are safe and ok. It helps our endocrine system to get online and produce oxytocin, the hormone that helps our uterus contract during labor, and it also produces endorphins, our body’s equivalent of a pain reliever. When conscious breathing is used during labor, and Mama is supported and encouraged to rely on it as well as using movement and other comfort measures, this can help labor to progress more quickly and reduce the need for interventions.
In addition, this kind of breath work helps to keep our blood pressure and heart rate steady and increases oxygen to all cells in the body and sends oxygen rich blood to your baby through the placenta.
The Emotional Benefits of Breath During Labor
When a laboring Mama can harness the power of her breath to gain “control” over her wandering mind during labor, magic can happen. The pain of labor is intense. As a teacher and a Mama of two, I know this to be true, and I don’t sugarcoat it. Getting our minds “right” as we prepare for labor and during, are critical to our ability to cope with the pain vs. suffer over it.
Conscious breathing not only does all the amazing things I shared above, but it also helps to create a distraction from the intensity of labor. It’s something else to focus on. Sometimes it’s the mere sound of it. Whether it’s a shushhhhing sound, a hee hee hoo, or a simple audible exhale, that sound can be what helps draw the mind away from the sensation Mom is feeling and allow her to focus on the sound she’s making and hearing.
The focus needed to consciously use those techniques “steers” the mind away from focusing on the pain. As Moms rely on their breath, the power of their contractions continue, thus keeping labor progressing, and drawing them deeper into what is called the Labor Zone. There’s a “taking over” of the body, as it knows what to do to bring your baby into this world, and the breath helps to support your ability to stay there.
Practice Makes “Presence”
I recommend that my Moms practice at least 5 minutes of mindfulness a day, using their breathing techniques to connect to their bodies, their babies and what they may be growing through in preparation for becoming a Mother. It’s an incredible “muscle” to build, to come back to the breath in order to find peace and calm during pregnancy and amidst the craziness of life. And trust me, you’ll need the same kind of calming, soothing breath once you become a Mother and as your children grow (can we talk about the terrible twos, threenagers, four and not having it, and feisty fives???)
Dawn Herring is the owner and founder of Empowered Births and Beginnings. She's a wife and Mama to two babes, born a little over a year apart. She is a Childbirth Education Teacher, Birth and Postpartum Doula, recovering perfectionist and Empowerer of Mamas. She teaches classes and serves women and families in the Tampa Bay Area.