Breathing techniques for labour and birth

Pregnant woman doing breathing exercises

“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 birth

Why do breathing techniques help during labour?

Knowing how to breathe “properly” (which generally means slowly and deeply) during labour has many benefits. It will not only get more oxygen to both you and your baby, but also help relax your mind and body.

Labour is never going to be a gentle stroll amongst the daffodils, but when you're stressed and panicky, your muscles tense up, slow down the process of labour and you're more likely to end up needing an assisted delivery. That's where breathing can help.

When you breathe in a shallow or quick way, your body responds and goes into “fear” mode – and that's not conducive to giving birth. Breathing slowly and rhythmically fights that fear response and lets your body know that it's safe to relax and show that baby the exit.

Where can I learn how to breathe in labour?

If you've signed up for antenatal classes, you can expect to cover breathing techniques at some point. But you can just as easily teach yourself. Practising breathing should really be up there at the top of your to-do list along with choosing baby names and packing your hospital bag. 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 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.

Don't panic if you haven't done any of this and your due date is fast approaching. Firstly, the midwives will guide you through it all on the day, so just stay calm and listen to them. But there's also lots you can do right now to become a birth-breathing pro. Practice doesn't necessarily make perfect here, but it will definitely help good breathing to come more naturally on the day. Slow, deep breathing is beneficial during pregnancy too, so there are plenty of reasons to get started as soon as you like.

If you have Braxton Hicks (false) contractions during pregnancy, these are a good opportunity to practise slow breathing – just breathe rhythmically through the “contraction” until it subsides (this also offers the opportunity for much fun, watching passers-by backing slowly away from the clearly pregnant woman looking as though she might be about to give birth). If you're already at 41 weeks and are impatient to get labour started, breathing exercises are a good way to get yourself into a slightly less frazzled, more zen state, and practise those in and out breaths, too.

Pregnant woman breathing exercises

How can breathing help at each stage of labour?

The main thing, throughout labour and birth, is to use breathing to stay as calm and relaxed as you can, which we appreciate sounds like an impossible task, but do your best. There are slightly different ways you can use breathing at the different stages of labour, however, so here’s a quick lowdown of each stage:

Breathing techniques for early labour

During early labour it's all about staying relaxed and conserving energy. 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 – you can try counting to four on an “in” breath, and then breathing out to the count of five to help you achieve this. 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.

Breathing techniques for active labour

As the contractions ramp up a gear, you can give the breathing a bit of welly in response. Here’s how to breathe “with” a contraction from start to finish:

  • At the start of each contraction give out a long “sighing” breath and then try to keep to the above slow, regular breathing – but now, breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth.
  • As the contraction builds up you might feel the need to take faster, lighter breaths. That's fine – just don't overdo it or you'll make yourself light-headed.
  • 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 three breaths or so.
  • Once the contraction begins to subside, slow your breathing back down, so that you're back to breathing slowly and regularly by the end of it.

Newborn baby

Breathing techniques for transition

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 may ask you not to push and advise on how best to breathe at this point, but panting and blowing out on your “out” breath can help enormously, 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 (although you’re welcome to do as you please) – 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.

Breathing techniques for delivery

During the third stage (the full-on pushing a baby out bit), try not to hold your breath while you're pushing, unless your midwife instructs you to do so. 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).

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.

It can be hard to gather your thoughts at this point but here are a few basics to keep in mind if you can:

  • 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 – always a bonus.

How can my birth partner help with breathing in labour?

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 keeping you focused.

You need eye-to-eye and physical contact for this to work well, so have your partner face you and hold your hands (or put their hands on your shoulders and lean forward gently on them) and then have them breathe in through the nose and blow out gently onto your face. Following the pattern of your partner's breaths will help you to focus on regulating and slowing your breathing back down.

Your partner can also “count” 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.

Try to take time to practise together before you go into labour. You want your partner to feel prepared and confident about helping you if you need it.

Admittedly, you'll probably both feel rather daft doing this at home, but during labour it can give you a massive boost.

Hypnobirthing

Breathing exercises for labour

To help hone your breathing methods ready for the big day, you might like to try some of these breathing exercises, which have a visual or verbal “reminder” to help you focus on the breath and be able to quickly “get into the zone” under pressure:

Blowing out a candle

As a contraction comes on, take a deep breath and then “puff” the pain away in short breaths – visualise a candle in front of you that you're putting out with the out breaths.

The golden thread

Again, start by taking a deep breath in through your nose with the start of the contraction. Breathe out smoothly through your mouth visualising the out breath as a golden thread that loops and swirls away from you as you breathe out, pushing pain away.

Counting breathing

As you breathe in, count in your head up to four, then as you breathe out, count to five or six. The idea is just to regulate your breathing and also give you something to concentrate on. Those who feel in need of more distraction (or if you're just a clever clogs) can do it in a foreign language or count backwards.

Can hypnobirthing make labour easier and less painful?

Sometimes referred to as “natural pain relief,” you might find the principles of hypnobirthing to be a helpful way of staying in control and feeling more calm. Hypnobirthing is based on the principle of changing women's thought processes in labour, such as replacing the words “contractions” with “tightenings”, with the idea being to make you feel more positive about labour and birth. Rather like breathing techniques, hypnobirthing can help you feel more relaxed, which will help labour go more smoothly by meaning you don't get an unwelcome hit of adrenaline and tense up. If you take the hypnobirthing route, you'll learn similar breathing techniques and positions in which to give birth, so even if the cognitive verbal programming part of things turns out to not be your jam, the other techniques are transferrable. It also means that your birth partner can do more than just stand there (gormlessly), as they can help you stay focussed on the techniques you've both learned. This can help them bond with the baby as they have taken an active role in the birth, and not just through bringing you tea and doughnuts.

Hypnobirthing is thought to reduce the length of the first stage of labour, minimise the need for intervention and might mean you're out of hospital sooner – but every birth is different and there are conflicting studies on its effectiveness. Either way though, anything that helps you relax more during labour has to be a good thing.

You can sign up for classes from 32 weeks, but there's no need to panic if you're past this point in your pregnancy – you can still learn hypnobirthing in the last few weeks. You can do it yourself at home with books, CDs or apps, but there is also a raft of providers who run hypnobirthing classes. Hypnobirthing courses can cost between £200 to £450, so it's a wise idea to read up and compare the prices for courses in your area.

What Mumsnetters say about breathing during labour

“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