As a hypnobirthing teacher and antenatal teacher I seem to spend an inordinate amount of my life discussing the process of breathing. Just getting the air in and getting it out again so that you can get more in – this act looms very large at this time of a woman’s life. It also looms large for a baby at the beginning of life so perhaps that’s another reason why we antenatal teachers, doulas, midwives etc seem sometimes a bit obsessed with breathing.
At an NCT class, there are usually a few sceptical eyebrows raised when I mention breathing as a way to cope with labour. Many people instantly dismiss the idea that “just breathing” can help with labour pain. For example, this morning I read an otherwise very good blog article by a new-ish dad – about the misinformation around childbirth which is perpetuated by the film industry. The blogger, to my disappointment, rather dismissed the concept of the “stereotypical Lamaze class” and the idea that “birth is all about breathing”. He made a very good point, on the other hand: namely that movie directors focus on breathing because it’s visual and aural, and makes for a good gag. But he could have added an observation that has often popped into my mind: that the breathing which movie directors are most fond of depicting is actually the wrong sort of breathing for contractions.
How many times have you seen a woman in a movie in the back of a car being rushed to hospital (she’s had about four contractions so the baby probably won’t appear for many hours yet – why the rush?) going “whoo, whoo, whoo, whoo” in short, tight pants? Lots of times, I’ll bet. She’s probably wearing short, tight pants as well, since this is Hollywood. But I digress.
The quick panting breath is a style I teach all my clients, and it’s a good one to know about. But I really would be surprised if anyone found it helpful right at the beginning of labour unless they are one of those rare people who have 45 minute labours. The quick panting breath – “imagine you are blowing out four birthday candles and then a long blow at the end” – is one you might use at the end of labour, at the birthing phase, when the baby is emerging into the light – not at the beginning phase.
All the quick panting breath achieves is to dampen down the woman’s natural, very powerful urge to bear down. Now, for birth to progress well we should be encouraging mums to do what their bodies are telling them, not going against it, so why would this be a good idea? The answer is that for most women it won’t be needed at all. But for some situations the quick panting breath is helpful because it slows things down a little bit: when the midwife needs to unloop an umbilical cord from around a baby’s neck; when the midwife has identified that the cervix is unevenly dilated and has a swollen bit – the “anterior lip” (a bit debatable this one); or it might just that the midwife wants the ensure the perineum stretches nice and slowly to minimise tearing.
The breathing that women do find incredibly useful in the first part of labour is universally recognised by midwives and teachers in all good childbirth teaching programmes, whether Lamaze, Hypnobirthing, Pregnancy Yoga or whatever. It comes in a variety of forms but however it is presented, howeverit’s described, the true labour breath utilises the fact that it is harder to be tense when breathing OUT than when breathing IN. Try it now. Tense your muscles and breathe in. Now breathe out and do it as slowly as you can. Do you find you are having to try extra hard to tense your muscles? In labour, the tenser the woman, the more the pain. And conversely, the more relaxed the woman, the less pain. So the more time she spends breathing out…the better.
Here is a short exercise to help you to find the kind of breathing which could be really helpful in labour. Of course, it would be even more helpful if you take a Hypnobirthing course! I think so, anyway!
Try taking a long slow breath in through your nose as though you were sniffing the scent of a beautiful, newly opened rose. Take it as slow as you like. Be aware of the the air entering your body. Be aware, too, of your mouth – keep it loose and floppy. Let your jaw relax.
Next: without holding your breath, close your eyes and breathe out through your mouth, allowing your mouth to be soft and floppy. Make your OUT breath very long but not so long as to be in any way uncomfortable. If you like, you could imagine that you are blowing a feather away across the room…not blowing it up into the air but straight ahead of you – across a table top, for example.
As you do this, drop your shoulders, notice your hands and arms being floppy. Now do it again. About 6 breaths like this, maybe five, maybe four, depending on your lungs, and a minute is gone.
One minute = one contraction. So if you practice this a few times you know how many breaths you need to get through one contraction…and to be one step closer to meeting your baby.
Now add a lovely low humming noise, even a moan or a moo…but that’s a subject for another blog post.