Breathing for Pregnancy and Birth: A Guide for Mothers-To-Be
You’ve probably heard the term ‘breathing techniques’ and it’s become a bit of a ‘cling-to’ phrase in the world of Pregnancy Yoga and Hypnobirthing marketing as it promises something tangible one can learn how to ‘do’ and become proficient in. It’s understandable women would want to try anything that promises to make birth more comfortable and easier! Many women go to a class for the sole purpose of learning “all that breathing stuff”. I know I did!
The word ‘techniques’ suggests there’s a mysterious set of methods that, once mastered, you’re in the ‘I know how to breathe birth club’ and hold the key to the secret world of peaceful birth where mothers just know what to do. I was going to say it’s not that simple (the just knowing what to do bit), but in actual fact, it’s not that complicated… let me explain.
Effective breathing starts with increasing your awareness of your breath patterns. Simply, bringing your attention to your breath, without judging if you’re doing it ‘right’ or not. By this I mean, gently listening and tuning into its rhythms.
Task: (Practise whilst sitting and stop if you ever feel dizzy).
Take an inhale breath through the nose, let your belly gently expand and let it flow out of your mouth through softly parted lips. Repeat a few times. Can you make the breath a little deeper now and release the air slowly? Gradually lengthen your exhale and empty the lungs completely.
Notice how the breath flows in and out.
Does it ever change?
Does it shudder at a certain point?
Simply notice sensations.
How can you allow it to flow more easily?
Now think about:
What happens to the breath when you feel relaxed?
What happens to the breath when you feel tense or worried?
How can you limit the amount of tension you feel in your life? You may not be able to control situations, but can you change how you respond to them?
By bringing attention to the breath, only then, can we start to play with what it’s capable of and how it can support us in birth. There’s no dark art to it. No fancy-pants techniques. No breathing guru saying “well done, beginner breather, you may proceed to the next level”.
You are your own teacher.
The nerdy bit:
The frontal part of the brain (the neo-cortex; the most recently developed part of the brain) is always in search of rational, scientific, realistic and logical things to hang its hat on in its quest to make sense of the world. This is why people love control, systems, acknowledgement, praise, knowing things and telling other people what they know. This is also why people love a ‘to do’ list and then love (possibly, even more) proudly ticking off each item: mission accomplished! That feeling of relief and joy when we can cross something off as done… Phew!
This part of the brain wants to protect us and make us believe we’re doing a good job at life so we then create even more things to achieve. Preparing for a baby involves ticking off many jobs: organising work, painting a nursery, buying clothes; and learning how to birth and breathe has become another thing to tick off the list. The neo-cortex is also responsible for wanting to calculate our progress in birth; how many centimeters, how long left, what’s happening now etc. So much doing and thinking!
So, are we over-thinking birth? Are we over-complicating what is essentially a physiological, bodily function – the same as digestion, breathing and going to the loo? Learning how to birth is more about unlearning all the things we’ve been told about birth; that it’s painful, dangerous, medical, dramatic (all the One Born Every Minute stuff). If you’re looking for positive birth films, look no further:
Birth is controlled by the reptilian part of our brain and is characterised by instincts, dominance and survival – not the thinking, frontal part of the brain. The body during birth, when it’s ‘in the zone’, is in the reptilian state.
Let your monkey do it!
Ina May Gaskin
The neocortex analyses the risks and benefits of decisions (so it’s an important part of birth too). But, here’s the thing about labour and birth (and breathing)… it’s not something you can analyse in the moment or ‘do’ (implying we can do it well or poorly), it’s something you ‘be’ or ‘become’. Something you are, however your baby enters the world.
Being not Doing
You wouldn’t write ‘do fun’ on your ‘to do’ list. You wouldn’t think ‘I must do some belly laughing with my best mate this week’. Equally, and in contrast, in times of acute grief, the mind doesn’t think rationally about how it processes pain when we are left alone, in private with our thoughts. We respond instinctively and often in a primal way to cry, scream, release or be in silence. It’s raw, unmanaged, felt and real.
Birth is the same; it’s an instinctive and a deeply personal experience. It responds to privacy, darkness, warmth and comfort. Trying to remember stuff with your head whilst in labour involves coming out of your subconscious mind (reptilian state) and into your conscious (the neocortex) and it takes you away from your natural responses. A cat, for example, doesn’t think so much about giving birth; it simply slinks off alone to find a dark, quiet and warm place where it feels safe to birth. But the human mind is more complex than that of an animal and we like to control things… but perhaps if we let go of this innate need to control, we could learn to trust our bodies to do what they’re innately designed to do.
The most profound feelings in the world are usually unplanned moments where you’re inside of yourself; you’re not thinking so much, just being. Joy, relief, pride, contentment, frustration, anger, disbelief; all these emotions arise from the depths of our gut, unprompted, and wash over us without warning. Think about the impulsive behavior of a child or the moments where you find yourself totally immersed in love with something, or love for someone.
This is where labour and birth starts and ends. Being totally inside yourself and being inside of it as a process. Living it with all the senses. Not thinking, predicting, measuring, judging or controlling. Just being privately inside the experience with your mind, body and baby as one.
So, breathing practices are more about being than doing. You can’t be bad at them or do them incorrectly. But, what you can do is practice some exercises regularly that, over the course of your pregnancy, become second nature. It’s the difference between unconscious breathing just to survive and conscious breathing to thrive and bring greater awareness and clarity to your life and the lives of those around you.
Why though? What’s in it for my baby and me?
Modern day living can be fast-paced and involve shifting attention quickly, managing work and family life, navigating expectations of others, multi-tasking, phone and email checking, arranging and planning. It’s easy to become imbalanced and stressed. When you’re pregnant, life goes on, but you’re also managing the added physical and emotional demands of carrying your baby, so it’s important to find time to step off the treadmill and give into looking after yourself and nurturing your baby.
So, when you practise conscious breathing, here’s what happens:
- Your baby hears your breathing and it’s a comfort to them (like a sonic massage). The sound waves are soothing and help them to feel relaxed. Newborns are comforted by sound (shhh sound, the voice of you/partner or the noise of the hoover!) That’s because it reminds them of being in the womb where it’s actually quite noisy.
- It allows the body to release endorphins, which are the body’s natural painkiller.
- You increase your oxygen supply (for you and baby) and increase the amount of oxygenated blood in the body.
- You increase the amount of space in the womb as the muscles expand with your breath (which can also help ease heartburn).
- Your diaphragm lifts as you inhale and gently massages the heart, which encourages blood flow around vital organs.
Conscious breathing has also been linked to:
- Better sleep.
- Increased concentration.
- Reduction of stress.
- Management of anxiety and depression.
- Management of high blood pressure.
- Decreased chronic pain.
Breathing practices or pranayama (meaning life force) can bring you energy, a sense of calm, increased focus and relaxation. They clear the noise from the mind and help you connect to your body. Try and practice them every day in pregnancy, maybe properly before bed and intermittently throughout the day.
The Full Yogic Breath (sitting with one hand on the heart and the other on your womb or lying down – left side after 30 weeks):
This breath involves using your full lung capacity, creating lots of oxygen for you and your baby. You can think of it as ‘breathing for two’.
There are three stages:
- Womb breathing:
Close your eyes and focus on your womb. As you breathe in, let your womb expand in all directions (like all the inside surfaces of a balloon) and allow it to deflate back towards your spine on the exhalation.
- Womb and chest breathing:
Once you’re comfortable with womb breathing, we develop this by also focusing on the chest expanding sideways and backwards, as the breath moves in and up. Feel each rib moving away from its neighbours, creating a sense of huge expansion, especially from side to side.
- Womb, chest and up to the collar bones:
The final stage is to allow the breath to expand in the womb, then rise up to the chest and finally the breath flows to the top section of the lungs and the collarbones.
The full yogic breath becomes like a wave flowing up the body on an inhalation and down the body on an exhalation.
This is great to practice at the onset of labour as it calms, energises and provides optimum oxygen for baby. The rising action mirrors the ‘up’ stage of the uterus muscles in the first stage of labour so you can visualise these muscles being drawn up too.
Golden Thread Breath:
This breath can be incredibly gentle and healing as it promotes stillness and calm and can also be used in the first stage of labour.
Take a yawn, release the jaw, throat and teeth. Have your teeth slightly apart and a very small gap between your lips, just enough space for a piece of tissue paper to be held between them. Breathe in through the nose. Feel a fine, cool breeze passing between the lips as you exhale. Allow the breath to be so fine that it feels as if a golden thread is spinning out between the lips. The thread is continuous, soft and supple and spins out with every exhalation.
Allow the exhalation to lengthen each time, without pushing or forcing. Let your attention go outwards with the golden thread. Everything remains soft.
You can also visualise a corkscrew and you exhale around every loop of the spiral. Images can be powerful so see what works for you.
This breath is helpful during contractions/surges.
This is a soft audible breath that the body does every night when in a deep sleep. Inhale through the nose and exhale as if you are steaming up a mirror with a long ‘huh’ sound or a sigh. This action sends your exhale into the throat. Now try closing the mouth so you are inhaling and exhaling through your nose but the energy is felt in the throat. Imagine the sound of the sea (or the sound that’s created when holding a seashell to your ear).
This breath is an immediate antidote to panic so can be used if fear sets in. When the body feels disturbed it’s a great way to get back into your flow after being anxious. It can be used throughout the whole birth, or just between contractions. It promotes deep rest and can be used in conjunction with the Golden Thread in labour.
This breath is for the second stage labour to ‘breathe the baby down’ and work with the expulsive power of the contractions. If you plan to use this in labour, it’s probably wise to write on your birth plan that you don’t require ‘coached pushing’ unless medical intervention is needed. Pushing with force is a great way to get your baby out quickly if there are concerns, but it’s not the only way to birth and can cause confusion (and tearing).
Inhale (through the nose) and lift the pelvic floor muscles and as you exhale (through the nose), direct the attention to these muscles and allow them to relax and release. Direct most of the downward exhalation to move awareness down through the birth canal, as if you were actually breathing out through this passage, tracing the path of the baby’s exit route.
Focus most of your attention on the release of the pelvic floor with your exhale. The exhale works with your contraction to breathe the baby out.
Visualisations when breathing – first stage of labour:
For the Full Yogic Breath, Golden Thread Breath and Ujjayi Breath, it might be helpful to visualise the uterus muscles being drawn upwards. This action happens in the first stage of labour; the muscles gather at the fundus (top of uterus) and push the baby down during the ejection reflex during the second stage. Your body pushes itself without you having to strain so much if you’re in an upright position. Inhaling through the nose followed by long exhalations through the nose promotes the release of oxytocin (feel good hormone that also stimulates contractions).
Can you see the fibres drawing up to thin and open the cervix? This happens during every contraction/surge.
Things to visualise in the first stage of labour:
Tip: choose one thing that works for you. These are just ideas.
- The sun rising (breathe in) and lifting into the sky (breathe out).
- Blow bubbles (breathe in) and get bigger (breathe out).
- Imagine being inside a hot air balloon (breathe in) and rise up (breathe out).
- Imagine the golden thread (breathe in) and watch it slowly unravel from softly parted lips (breathe out).
Visualisations when breathing – second stage of labour:
For the Birthing Breath and the Ujjayi Breath during the second stage, it might be helpful to visualise the strong muscle fibres of the uterus gathering at the top, which then act like a piston to create expulsive surges, which slide your baby down the birth canal. You may feel an intensive feeling of bearing down and pressure here.
Just like all muscles in the body, the uterus and cervix work as a pair – as the uterus contracts, the cervix relaxes.
Things to visualise during the second stage of labour:
- A coffee plunger. Your body is the glass coffee pot and your breath is the plunger. The breath moves down the glass, section by section, and there’s no bottom on the jug, so your baby comes right out at the end.
- Watching petals fall from a sunflower, one by one, softly and gently.
- A large rose opening its petals in the sunlight.
- Watching ripples flow across a pond.
I recommend the app ‘Insight Timer’ which has lots of guided meditations to help you sleep, manage stress and many other emotions. There are specific meditations for mother and baby bonding on there too along with music for birth.
Also on the Yoga Nidra Network, Uma Dinsmore Tuli has a free MP3 download for a lovely Baby Bond relaxation to practise throughout pregnancy.
Practise every day if you can. Get clear on what works for you and practice with your birth partner. Make yourself a priority and give yourself the gift of conscious breathing (for two!)
Happy breathing and happy birthing!
Laura Asbury (BA, MA, PGDE, RYT, KGH Dip).
Yoga for Pregnancy and Birth by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli
Mothers Breath by Uma Dinsmore-Tuli
The Hypnobirthing Book by Katharine Graves