Comfort Measures in Labor: Breathing
When we get upset or stressed, we are told to take deep breaths. When a nurse is about to start an IV or give a patient a shot, she often instructs the patient to take in a deep breath and then blow it out slowly. When a mother is in labor, she is often given different instructions on how to breathe.
So what is the deal with breathing? Does it really help? Does it actually do something to us physically or is it just a psychological trick.
How does deep breathing affect the body?
Breathing is essential to life. Our bodies also know how to trigger breathing patterns to meet the demands our systems.
“Scientific studies have shown that controlling your breath can help to manage stress and stress-related conditions.” (Better Health Channel)
When we are stressed, we automatically start breathing faster and shallower breaths. Our body is preparing to fight or flee. However, we can control this response by focusing on our breath and forcing ourselves to take slower and deeper breaths. By doing this, we reduce our stress levels. In labor, stress can cause your adrenaline levels to rise. Adrenaline suppresses oxytocin which is the hormone that drives labor. Adrenaline can slow or even stop labor. It is vital to remain in a calm and relaxed state during labor. Breathing is an excellent way to keep on top of your stress levels during labor.
“Deep breathing increases the supply of oxygen to your brain and stimulates the parasympathetic nervous system, which promotes a state of calmness. Breathing techniques help you feel connected to your body—it brings your awareness away from the worries in your head and quiets your mind.” (Marksberry)
One study performed in 2009 found that deep breathing exercises were “effective in increasing patient’s feelings of rapport and intentions to follow their doctor’s directives” (Downey). Another study found that “the way of breathing decisively influences autonomic and pain processing, thereby identifying DSB (Deep Slow Breathing) in concert with relaxation as the essential feature in the modulation of sympathetic arousal and pain perception.” (Busch) They also found “reductions in negative feelings (tension, anger, and depression).” (Busch)
Here are a few other benefits to controlled breathing according to Better Health Channel:
- lowered blood pressure and heart rate
- reduced levels of stress hormones in the blood
- reduced lactic acid build-up in muscle tissue
- balanced levels of oxygen and carbon dioxide in the blood
- improved immune system functioning
- increased physical energy
- increased feelings of calm and wellbeing
How can a woman use breathing to help in labor?
Lamaze may be the most well known organization for teaching breathing in labor. My mother has informed me many times about how she was taught breathing while taking Lamaze when she was pregnant with me. She would imitate the hallmark “Hee Hee Who” breathing taught by Lamaze for years. She has continued to use it throughout her life when she was in pain.
“Conscious breathing (especially slow breathing) reduces heart rate, anxiety, and pain perception. It works in part because when breathing becomes a focus, other sensations (such as labor pain) move to the edge of your awareness.
“Conscious breathing is an especially useful labor tool because it not only keeps you and your baby well oxygenated, it’s also easy to learn and use. It’s naturally rhythmic and easy to incorporate into a ritual. And best of all, breathing is the one coping strategy that can’t be taken away from you—even if you’re stuck in bed attached to an electronic fetal monitor and intravenous fluids.” (Lothian)
Today, Lamaze suggests different breathing techniques, especially slow, deep breathing however, they stress that the right breathing technique is the one that feels best to you.
The best advice for how to use breathing in labor is to practice beforehand. Take twenty to thirty minutes each day to sit in a quite room, close your eyes, release the tension in your shoulders, and take slow, deep breaths. Give yourself this gift each day. Ask your husband to practice with you. Practicing together will help him to remember in labor how to help you get into your deep breathing “ritual.”
Breathing is a wonderful way to reduce stress, increase relaxation, keep mom and baby well-oxygenated, reduce muscle fatigue, fight against exhaustion, reduce perception of pain, and improve your birthing experience. Breathing is a comfort measure that will never be restricted. Even if you are limited in your mobility or must labor in bed, you always have access to breathing as a comfort measure.
Take a few minutes each day to practice your slow, deep breathing. Let this short moment help you to release your pregnancy stress and help you prepare for labor.
If you are in the Denton, TX area and are interested in hiring a doula for your birth experience, contact me today to schedule a free consultation. If you are interested in learning about more comfort measures in labor, check out my Comfort Measures page.
- Better Health Channel. Breathing to reduce stress. (n.d.). Retrieved July 24, 2016, from https://www.betterhealth.vic.gov.au/health/healthyliving/breathing-to-reduce-stress
- Busch, V., Mageri, W., Kern, U., Haas, J., Hajak, G., & Eichhammer, P. (2012, February). The effect of deep and slow breathing on pain perception, autonomic activity, and mood processing–an experimental study. Retrieved July 24, 2016, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/21939499
- Downey, L. V., & Zun, L. S. (2009, June). The effects of deep breathing training on pain management in the emergency department. Retrieved July 24, 2016, from http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/19487995
- Lothian, J. A., & De Vries, C. (2012, April 24). Lamaze Breathing. Retrieved July 24, 2016, from http://www.lamaze.org/lamazebreathing
- Marksberry, K. (2012, August 10). Take a Deep Breath. Retrieved July 24, 2016, from http://www.stress.org/take-a-deep-breath/