Learning breathing practices for childbirth has clear physical benefits. Breathing techniques keep the body more relaxed, and thus better able to cope with the discomfort of contractions and delivery. Mentally, too, breath awareness creates an anchor point, one element that a woman in labor can control among all the dramatic changes happening in her body when the baby is ready to be born. “The thinking about breath practice — whether it’s yogic breathing or Lamaze or hypnobirth or whether style of breathing resonates with that individual — is that it really does carry them through,” says Shannon Moyer-Szemenyei, a certified birth and postpartum doula, and a certified meditation instructor. “I’ve seen women get through the most difficult birth situations, complicated birth situations, just by using their breath.” Moyer-Szemenyei takes us through the most popular breathing techniques for birth.
Breathing Technique #1: Lamaze
Lamaze was the first birth breathing technique to enjoy mainstream popularity in the Western world. Named for Fernand Lamaze, the French obstetrician who created it in the 1950s, it’s an entire system of childbirth preparation and pain management. “I’m 35 years old,” says Shannon Moyer-Szemenyei, “this is a technique that my mom would have learned.” The breathing portion of the early Lamaze system was a “hee, hoo, hee, hoo” style of purposeful, conscious breathing.
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Lamaze teaching has evolved to surround whatever type of patterned breathing works best for the woman to stay relaxed and on top of her contractions and confident that she can deliver her baby. In Lamaze classes, the expecting couple will learn a variety of techniques that they can practice to find the woman’s preferred rhythm for different parts of labor and delivery.
Breathing Technique #2: Alternative Nostril
Alternate nostril breathing is done by inhaling through one nostril, and exhaling through the other. Then switching, so you inhale through the nostril you just exhaled from, and exhale from the other. Use your index finger to close off the nostril not being used. Or is that makes you feel claustrophobic, as Moyer-Szemenyei says happens to some people, you can get nearly the same effect by using your hands at your side. Simply clench the right-hand fist to represent closing the right nostril, and vice-versa.
This practice comes from pranayama, an ancient Hindu yogic practice to control the breath, which is considered the source of prana, or vital life force energy. While most pranayama is considered too powerful to be taught outside the guidance of a meditation instructor, alternate nostril breathing is one exception. The effect is to balance the left and right sides of the body and mind, creating balance and harmony. Moyer-Szemenyei recommends this technique for early- to mid-labor, to help the mother-to-be center her birth breathing, calm her heart rate, and focus through contractions.
Breathing Technique #3: 4:4 Wave
Inhale to the count of four, pause for one second, then exhale to the count of four. Repeat. The 4:4 wave breath is a hypnobirth technique used during active labor to calm anxieties and fears. It creates an even, measured breath rhythm. “We coach clients to picture the swell of a wave while practicing this technique,” says Moyer-Szemenyei. “The breath, like a wave, comes in, it swells, then it goes back out again.” Visualize the wave with every inhalation and exhalation.
Breathing Technique #4: 4:7
Another hypnobirth breathing technique, 4:7 starts with an inhalation to a count of four, followed by an exhalation to the count of seven. To elongate the exhale that much, keep it soft and gentle. Like 4:4 wave, this practice is used for active labor, and it has a secret weapon: “They’ve found that if your exhalation is twice as long as your inhalation, you can actually put yourself into a natural state of hypnosis,” says Moyer-Szemenyei. She recommends it when labor starts to get difficult. “Of all the techniques, this is the one that my clients tend to rely on most for pain management during a contraction.”
Breathing Technique #5: Breath of Fire
Breath of fire, known as ujjayi pranayama in yoga circles, is an assertive, forceful breath. It’s done by inhaling firmly through the nose, and then forcefully pushing out the exhale, making an aspirant sound in the back of the throat. Moyer-Szemenyei uses it in the transitional phase of labor, when it’s time to start pushing, to stoke a woman’s confidence and power. For extra bravado, she suggests her clients do it with their hand over their heart. “Your lung capacity at the end of pregnancy is really compromised — all of the organs have shifted out of the way, and taking a full belly breath is difficult,” Moyer-Szemenyei says. “But putting a hand on the chest and breathing into it, so breathing up instead of trying to breathe everything down where space is already limited, feels really empowering.”
Breathing Technique #6: In and Out
In the final stages of labor (and sometimes in the early stages), even the most well-practiced breathing techniques can be forgotten. In that case, the important thing about breathing is to literally just do it. “In labor, you’re having this surge of adrenaline and that fight or flight hormone is coming on and you’re not fully in control,” says Moyer-Szemenyei. “A lot of women tend to clench their jaws, hike up their shoulders, and hold their breath.” It’s all a normal response to pain, but it actually makes it harder on the body to tolerate pain. Plus, it raises mom’s body temperature and heart rate, which isn’t so great for her unborn baby. Staying relaxed is better for everyone, and remembering to breathe is the simplest way to do that.