A woman appears to be in labor. She holds her belly and appears to be breathing heavy.
Paired with other pain-relieving techniques during labor, breathing exercises can be especially effective. (For Spectrum Health Beat)

Breathing is something we do every day without thinking one bit about it.

Our bodies are simply designed to work without us having to put much thought into autonomic functions such as breathing and pumping blood.

For the most part, that works to our advantage.

But sometimes it works against us.

Have you ever been in a stressful situation—hung up in slow-moving traffic, for example, or having a disagreement with a friend—and suddenly felt like those autonomic processes were spiraling out of control?

We’ve all had those moments.

At such times, have you ever just stopped to take a deep, relaxing breath?

I’ve previously looked at how yoga is helpful in pregnancy, but it’s important to understand that breathing has always been one of the fundamental parts of yoga.

Take a couple of nice big breaths and see what you notice.

Breathe in through your nose, then out through your mouth slowly. Do you feel just a bit more calm?

You probably felt your body relax as you focused on slowing your breathing. Typically, your heart rate also slows and your blood pressure stays in its normal range.

Taking a few minutes each day to focus on breathing can help you relax.

You can even enlist modern technology to keep you on track. My Fitbit can be programmed for two- and five-minute sessions that remind me to breathe slowly, in and out.

Mind and body

If you’ve watched any movies about birth, you may have learned about the breathing pattern that is sometimes portrayed—it’s a “he-he-ho” type of sound. (I previously looked at the Hollywood portrayal of birth in a two-part series, here and here.)

Women who gave birth in the 1990s or prior will certainly remember the breathing patterns that originated in the Lamaze style of childbirth education.

Back in the ’60s, women taking Lamaze classes were taught how to use strict breathing patterns at different points in labor.

But during the past 20-plus years, Lamaze has evolved. The brand now takes the stance that there is no one right way to breath, per se, although it does teach slow breathing as one of many options for labor.

While I still teach three different breathing patterns as starting points for labor, I strongly emphasize that each mama-to-be should use what works for her.

Toward the end of my own labor experience, I tended to use a faster-paced pattern because that’s what worked better for me. It will depend on what the mom prefers.

According to the Listening to Mothers III Pregnancy and Birth survey, about half of the 2,400 women polled for the year-long study used some form of breathing technique—rather than medication—to help them deal with contractions.

Other leading, medication-free methods of pain relief in labor included position changes, mental strategies and hands-on techniques such as messages.

These types of approaches aren’t just psychological. They also affect our biological responses.

We know there is a correlation between relaxed, focused breathing and the levels of catecholamines, the latter interfering with the natural release of oxytocin, the hormone that helps in the progression of labor.

Focused breathing is thought to interrupt pain signals to the brain, which can help decrease the release of catecholamines.

Various studies over the years have provided different perspectives on breathing’s role in labor processes, so it would be difficult to try to distill any number of them into a single point.

What we can confidently say, however, is that breathing plays a key role in bettering the labor experience, especially when paired with other comfort techniques such as using a birth ball, changing positions, hydrotherapy and so on.

What is the takeaway? I’d highly encourage you to attend a childbirth class and learn about breathing and all the other labor options.