Deep breathing in labour – natural and effective pain relief

Breathing could possibly be the most natural tool you’ll have when it comes to pain relief in labour and by adopting a few simple techniques, you can equip yourself with one of the best ways to stay in control.

However, breathing incorrectly can often make labour a more stressful experience, which is why it may take a bit of practice to make sure you’re breathing the right way.

How does controlled breathing help?

Slow, rhythmic breathing – inhaling through your nose and then exhaling out through your mouth – allows the greatest amount of oxygen to be delivered to you and your baby. And the more oxygen you have during labour, the better you will feel and the likelier it will be for your labour to progress smoothly. This is because slow breathing prevents your body from tensing up. Tense muscles in labour will only make the contractions more painful.

Shallow and panicked breathing is a natural response to stressful situations. But taking in air and breathing it out in short, sharp bursts can make you feel lightheaded and dizzy, and it won’t be long before you become exhausted breathing this way.

This style of quick breathing can also halt your body’s production of oxytocin, which is the hormone responsible for progressing labour. By taking a long slow breath at the beginning of each contraction your blood will be oxygenated, which helps provide pain-relieving oxygen to the muscles of the uterus.

Steady breathing will also give you something other than the pain to focus on. It’s for all of these reasons that the NHS Trust North Bristol recommends the SOS (sigh out slowly) breathing technique to help you through strengthening contractions.

Why would I need to practise breathing?

It’s breathing – it should be simple, right? Well, for labour, you’re going to need great focus, so it pays to start practising in the weeks leading up to your EDD.

Most of the techniques we detail below use some form of visualisation to accompany the breathing. Positive visualisation is a great way to achieve relaxation in labour, as having a mental image to focus on will help take your mind off the contractions themselves. If you have any questions or concerns about any of the techniques, you can always ask your midwife or doctor for assistance and further guidance.

Breathing techniques for pain relief

Rhythmic breathing – In order to stay in control, you’ll want to try to replicate your natural breathing pattern during labour, so take a moment to close your eyes and pay attention to your own rhythm, taking note of the pauses between your in-breaths and out-breaths. In labour, it will help with muscle relaxation if your exhalation is longer than your inhalation.

Counted breathing – This is a great way of ensuring you avoid rapid breathing. Count slowly up to three as you breathe in through your nose. Then slowly exhale out of your mouth for a count of four. You can count up to whichever number feels most comfortable, but it’s good to make your exhalation last for one or two counts more.

The golden thread method – Try to relax your face and jaw with your teeth and lips slightly apart. Take a deep breath in through your nose. Purse your lips and let out a slow, controlled breath through the small gap in your mouth. As you exhale, picture a golden thread gently passing through your lips and into the distance.

The candle method – This method is useful when you feel a contraction commencing. Imagine there are several lit candles in front of you. At the start of a contraction, take a deep breath in and then exhale in short bursts, as if you’re blowing out the candles. Imagine you’re blowing out the pain.

“Re-lax” – The word ‘relax’ itself can literally help you relax. Separate it into its two syllables. Think “re” as you breathe in and “lax” as your breath out, letting go of any tension as you do so.

Your birth partner can help you maintain a rhythmic breathing pattern. If you feel overwhelmed and tired during strong contractions and, as a result, you stop breathing in a controlled rhythm, your partner can help by breathing with you. By maintaining eye contact with them or by holding their hand, you can create a strong bond with your partner, becoming synchronised with them as you mirror their breathing.

How can Yoga help with breathing?

Yoga has many benefits for pregnant women, and chief among these is that is encourages focused, controlled, deep breathing through all the exercises. The practice of deep breathing in yoga is known as pranayama.

If you attend an antenatal yoga class, ask your instructor about pranayama techniques. He or she can make sure you’re practising the right techniques (some breathing exercises taught in yoga aren’t suitable for pregnancy) and that you’re doing them as safely as possible.

Breathing is natural, but practise makes perfect

These deep breathing exercises are best practised regularly during the run-up to birth. That way, they become less of a conscious effort and more of a habit, so you will find yourself naturally applying them during childbirth.

With not long to go, learning these techniques can not only have physical benefits for your body but can also help get you into a positive frame of mind, helping you adjust to the physical demands of labour in a calm, controlled way.

Important – If you or your child are unwell you should seek medical advice from a professional – contact your GP or visit an A&E department in an emergency. While My BabyManual strives to provide dependable and trusted information on pregnancy and childcare 24/7 via our website pages, we cannot provide individual answers to specific healthcare questions.