How your breathing techniques can help during labour

Dr Penelope Law Consultant obstetrician and gynaecologist at The Portland Hospital gives advice on breathing during labour

Whether you are planning a water, vaginal or hypnobirth, managing your breathing can help you to relax and focus during your contractions. Here is how to maximise the benefits of breathing during labour.

How can breathing act as a natural form of pain relief during labour?
Practising controlled breathing has many benefits during labour. Not only does it help to keep your muscles relaxed but it also ensures there is an adequate supply of oxygen all around the body. Training the mind to focus on inhaling and exhaling to develop a steady rhythm will also ensure you feel calmer, more focused and more in control of your labour.

What is the best way to manage your breathing during labour?
Managing your breathing is a skill that comes with training and practice. It is best to master your breathing well in advance and women are encouraged to attend specially designed antenatal classes where they can learn techniques and rhythms that are proven to reduce the intensity of contractions.

During the initial stage of labour you will likely be encouraged to breathe in and out slowly. The best technique is to inhale through your nostrils and count to five, and then exhale through your mouth for five seconds. As your labour intensifies, you will find your breathing naturally becomes stronger and more prolonged, and you may benefit from taking two to three breaths per contraction.

How can breathing help to manage the first stages of labour?
The first stage of labour is often the longest. It can be a tiring time for expectant mothers, who will experience a mild contraction every 15 or so minutes.

These contractions can feel similar to strong period cramps and concentrating on managing your breathing can help you to focus throughout the contraction. Other
non-medicinal pain relief includes having a warm bath or using a TENs machine.

How can breathing help in the later stages?
Active labour is said to have begun once your cervix is 2-3cms dilated, and you are having regular and strong contractions that become more intense. During active labour your midwife will encourage you to maintain a deep and rhythmic breathing pattern with each contraction.

It is remarkable how much focusing on your breathing, with help from your partner or a recording, can help you to relax. However, if at any point if this is not enough to keep you comfortable advise your midwife who can offer you a range of options. Remember, you do not need to be in pain.

Why should you switch between shallow and deep breathing during labour?
During the second stage of labour, when you are ready to start pushing, your body will let you know how your breathing can help you to deliver your baby. Try to hold your breath and push into your bottom, as if you were constipated, for as long as you can. A good length of time to aim for is about as long as it takes to swim a length of a 20m pool underwater without coming up to take a breath. It can be useful to practise this
antenatally in the pool. Once you hear your midwife or doctor advising you to stop pushing and lightly pant, you know your baby is about to be born and you have done all
the hard work.