Breathing techniques for labour and birth
"Don't forget to breathe" might sound like the most obvious piece of advice you can give someone, but learning special breathing techniques for labour can really help get you through each contraction, stop you pushing at the wrong time and go some way to ensuring a smoother labour.
If you've booked into antenatal classes you should expect to cover breathing techniques at some point. The good news is you can use these techniques anywhere you choose to give birth - home, hospital, birthing pool, Sainsbury's car park - and they won't have anything but a positive effect on your baby.
The downside is that, to be effective, practice makes perfect and you can feel like a complete numpty puffing away at home when the only thing going on is the washing machine. But it's really worth doing your homework, so here are a few things to try.
Not exactly rocket science: just breathe slowly in and out through each contraction. Try to to keep to a regular rhythm and keep the 'out' breath as long, if not slightly longer, than your 'in' breath.
It can help to count your way through each breath - breathe in for three and out for four - and to breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
- As each contraction starts give out a long 'sighing' breath and then try to keep to the above slow, regular breathing - in through your nose and out through your mouth
- As the contraction builds up you might feel the need to take faster, lighter breaths - just don't overdo it
- At the contraction's peak it can help to pant - like a dog - in and out through your mouth, interspersed with a deeper breath every few breaths or so
- As the contraction ebbs slow your breathing back down, so that you're back to breathing slowly and regularly by the end of it
As you near or reach transition, you may feel a desperate urge to push. Which you desperately need to resist until your midwife gives you the green light. (If you're not fully dilated you can do yourself a great disservice by trying to get your baby out early.)
Your midwife will undoubtedly ask you not to push and probably advise on how best to breathe at this point, but panting and blowing out on your 'out' breath can help hugely, as can getting on all fours and sticking your bum in the air (nobody said labour was glamorous).
To practise this at home - the breathing, not the bum bit - try a 'pant, pant, blow' routine. (Strictly Come Dancing fans might like to think of this as 'quick, quick, slow'.) When you blow out, imagine you're trying to almost, but not quite, blow a candle out.
Unless your midwife tells you otherwise, try not to hold your breath while you're pushing. It's easy to burst a facial blood vessel, which won't look great for those first pictures of you and your baby (in very extreme cases, you can end up with a pneumothorax, aka a hole in your lung).
As each contraction starts, breathe in and out gently, and then, when you feel the urge to push, take a deep breath in, tuck your chin into your chest and breathe or blow out slowly as you bear down.
Try to be led by what your body's telling you to do. Unless you have an epidural, then your body will actually push on its own, regardless of how you're breathing.
Keeping your pelvic floor as relaxed as possible, push from between your legs, rather than holding the tension in your throat, neck or face. (Yes, we know this appears stupidly obvious, but in reality this can be much harder than it sounds.) You'll probably want to push about four times per contraction - so don't forget to take a big breath in before each push.
Some women do small, frequent pushes. They should be spontaneous rather than organised with big breaths - unless you have an epidural and can't feel to push.
As your baby crowns you may be told to stop pushing and just pant - this will help slow things down a bit and can help to prevent you tearing.
Giving birth can be frightening, and when you're scared your breathing rate speeds up and becomes erratic and inefficient at getting oxygen into your lungs. Your baby needs oxygen - and so do you. And if you don't get enough you will feel wobbly and tire quickly, just when you need as much energy as possible. Holding your breath for a long time will have a similar effect.
This is where your birth partner can help by breathing with you during your labour.
You need eye-to-eye and physical contact for this to work well, so have your partner face you and hold your hands (or he can put his hands on your shoulders and lean forward gently on them) and then have him breathe in through his nose and blow out gently on to your face. Following the pattern of his breaths will help you to focus on regulating and slowing your breathing back down.
Your partner can also help by counting for you as you breathe - it will help you keep your breathing speed under control - or by reminding you to 'pant, pant, blow" and so on.
Co-breathing/counting can also work well with the other styles of breathing mentioned above, so take time out to practise together before you go into labour. You want your partner to feel prepared and confident about helping you if you need it: if you both understand what's going to work best, and when, you'll have a much better chance of co-breathing working for you.
Admittedly, you'll probably both feel rather daft doing this at home - we know we did - but during labour it can give you a massive boost.
What Mumsnetters say about breathing during labour
- The breathing techniques I learnt at my NCT classes were amazing; I managed to fully dilate without too much pain at all when I focused on them. charlotte121
- My son was almost born in the hospital car park so I did it with no pain relief. The really painful bit was in the 40-minute journey to hospital. It sounds clichéd but I made myself breathe to deal with it and it really worked. Whistlejacket
- Breathing helped me, although I've no idea whether it was just because I was concentrating on it rather than the pain or whether it was a more physiological reason... or perhaps a bit of both. I used the word 'relax' to help me: I breathed in to 're' and out to 'lax'. It worked really well until my partner kept asking, 'Are you having a contraction?' and expecting me to answer! (I'm breathing deeply and swaying around like a cow with a grimace on my face - what do you think dumbass?!) TillyScoutsmum
- At the start I found that using gas and air helped me focus on my breathing. Then things started moving up a gear and I remember groaning as the urge to push got stronger. Meanwhile, my husband was being an absolute star and counting my breathing in and out so I didn't lose focus. There was one brief point, which I guess was transition, where I felt I was losing it but he got very stern about the breathing and brought me back into control. I could feel the baby moving down and was overawed at the realisation that there were actually two of us involved in this experience, it was just so amazing. Milkycheeks
Last updated: 10 months ago