Whether you are planning a water, vaginal or hypno-birth, managing your breathing can help you to relax and focus during your labour contractions. Here, Dr Penelope Law, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist at The Portland Hospital, explains how to maximise the benefits of breathing during labour.
How can breathing act as a natural form of pain relief during labour?
Practising controlled breathing has many benefits during labour. Not only does it help to keep your muscles relaxed but it also ensures that there is an adequate supply of oxygen all over the body. Training the mind to focus on inhaling and exhaling in order to develop a steady rhythm will also ensure that you feel calmer, more focused and more in control of your labour.
What is the best way to manage your breathing during labour?
Managing your breathing during labour is a skill that comes with training and practice. It is best to master your breathing well in advance and for this reason women are encouraged to attend specially designed antenatal classes where they can learn a number of techniques and rhythms that are proven to reduce the intensity of contractions during labour.
During the initial stage of labour you will likely be encouraged to breathe in and out slowly. The best technique to use is to inhale through your nostrils and count to five and then exhale through your mouth for a further five seconds. As your labour intensifies you will find that your breathing naturally becomes stronger and more prolonged and you may benefit from taking two to three breaths per contraction.
How can breathing help to manage the first stages of labour?
The first stage of labour is often the longest and can be a tiring time for expectant mothers who will experience a mild contraction every 15 or so minutes. These contractions can feel similar to strong period cramps and concentrating on managing your breathing can help you to focus throughout the contraction. Other non-medicinal pain relief that can help to manage initial labour pains include having a warm bath or using a TENs (transcutaneous electrical nerve stimulation) machine.
How can breathing help to manage the later stages of labour?
Active labour is said to have begun once your cervix is 2-3 cms dilated and you are having regular strong contractions that become more intense. During active labour your midwife will encourage you to maintain a deep and rhythmic breathing pattern with each contraction and it is remarkable how focussing on your breathing with help from your partner or a relaxation recording can help you to relax. However, if at any point if this is not enough to keep you comfortable and focussed do advise your midwife who can offer you a range of options. Remember you do not need to be in pain.
Why should you switch between shallow and deep breathing during labour?
During the second stage of labour - when you are ready to start pushing - your body will let you know how your breathing can help you to deliver your baby. Try to hold your breath and push into your bottom as if you were constipated for as long as you can. A good length of time to aim for is about as long it takes to swim a length of a 20m pool underwater without coming up to take a breath and it can be useful practise this ante-natally yourself in the pool. Once you hear your midwife or doctor advising you to stop pushing and to lightly pant - you know your baby is about to be born and you have done all the hard work!
Can hypnobirthing techniques help you to manage your breathing?
Hypnobirthing is a powerful method of focussing your mind during labour and is increasingly used to help women to achieve a natural birth. This form of delivery is becoming very popular, but it is most effective when you have attended hypnotherapy antenatal sessions designed to teach you to focus on the relaxation sound tracks, and when you have listened to these several times yourself at home, in your last few weeks of pregnancy. All pregnant women can actually benefit from practising these simple hypnobirthing strategies in the last few weeks of pregnancy, no matter what form of delivery you are planning.
Will exercise help me to manage my breathing?
For the majority of women exercise is safe during pregnancy and helps to prepare both the body and the lungs for labour. During pregnancy the expanding uterus compresses the maximum lung volume and can lead to some women experiencing intermittent breathlessness. There should not be any accompanying chest pain - if this is so you should seek medical advice. Women who have a greater maximum lung volume to start with, as a result of regular exercise, will be much less likely to suffer from shortness of breath during labour and will be better prepared for the physical exertion of labour and delivery. Yoga or Pilates classes specifically tailored for pregnant women are an ideal exercise for pregnant women and can be booked here.
For more information on the antenatal and maternity services available at The Portland Hospital or to book an appointment with Dr Law please contact our maternity services enquiry line on 020 7390 6068 or her secretary on 020 7390 8447.