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Breathing techniques for labour – exercise tips

Breathing techniques for labour can be a useful tool to help you cope with the discomfort of contractions. They help you to relax, and can reduce your anxiety and pain perception during the most challenging phases of labour. Here we give you some tips on breathing exercises so that you can prepare for birth in the best way.

Breathing techniques for labour – exercise tips

Breathing techniques for labour can reduce discomfort

Breathing and relaxation go hand in hand. Knowing about good breathing techniques for labour and being able to use them at the right time will help you to cope with the discomfort of contractions. They may even reduce the need for medicinal pain relief during labour.

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Good breathing techniques for labour decrease anxiety, improve oxygenation, and encourage you to stay ‘present’ and active during childbirth. Your body releases less of the stress hormone cortisol, and more of the pain-relieving hormones called endorphins – this calms and relaxes you.

Good breathing techniques for labour decrease anxiety, improve oxygenation, and encourage you to stay ‘present’ during childbirth.

Preparation is crucial. It’s a good idea to start spending 10-15 minutes a day practising breathing techniques as early as your second trimester.

Your options for exploring breathing techniques include antenatal/NCT classes, mindful birthing, conscious birthing workshops, yoga, and guided meditation.

Tips on breathing exercises to help you during labour

Slow breathing during early labour

Use slow breathing during early labour, when your contractions become more rhythmic. You can switch to another breathing technique when you feel that the one you are using is no longer working for you.

1. As the contraction begins, take a deep breath and consciously release all tension as you breathe out. Focus your attention on your breathing.
2. Slowly inhale through your nose and then slowly exhale through your mouth. You can count to 5 as you inhale and to 8 as you exhale to maintain your focus.
3. Pause for 1–3 seconds and repeat.

Read about how hypnobirthing can help you to relax during childbirth

Light, accelerated breathing as an alternative in early labour

This breathing technique can be used in early labour, or when slow breathing is no longer relaxing or effective.

1. Start with a cleansing breath (a deep and slow breath in through your nose and out through your mouth) as the contraction begins.
2. Accelerate your breathing as the contraction peaks by inhaling and exhaling at an increased speed. Breathe in and out through your mouth, with light and shallow breathing. It can be described as ‘puffing’.
3. Go back to your normal or slow breathing again.

You can switch to another breathing technique when the one you are using is no longer working for you.

Variable breathing during the transitional phase

The phase when your cervix dilates from 8 to a full 10 cm is called the transitional phase because it marks the shift to the second stage of labour. This is the most intense part of labour. Contractions are usually very strong, coming every two-and-a-half to three minutes. It is also the shortest stage of labour.

1. Start with a cleansing breath.
2. Breathe in. When you breathe out, make the sound ‘hee’ three times and then one long ‘hoo’ sound.
3. When the contraction subsides, you can take another cleansing breath.
4. Go back to your normal or slow breathing again.

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Expulsive breathing during the second stage of labour

Use this breathing technique when you feel the urge to push during the second stage of labour. Your cervix is now fully dilated at 10 cm.

1. Breathe comfortably until the urge to push becomes irresistible.
2. Then take a deep breath and hold it or slowly release it, while bearing down for 5-7 seconds.
3. After bearing down, exhale any remaining air and breathe comfortably until you feel the next strong urge.
4. Repeat this procedure. You may bear down 2-4 times in one contraction.
5. Finish with a cleansing breath. Some women find it helpful to grunt, moan or make low noises while bearing down.

Source: Colleen Brezine, CNM (Certified Nurse Midwife), University Hospitals St. John Medical Center, Cleveland, Ohio, USA