The Importance of Breathing in Labour
Breathing during labour might sound like the most natural thing in the world – after all – we do it all day every day. But there are some real benefits to learning specific breathing techniques that will help you during all stages of your labour, right up to bringing your baby into the world.
A great deal has been made over the ‘right’ way to breathe when you are in labour. Ever since Lamaze came up with his childbirth breathing techniques in the 1960s, childbirth educators have been refining how you might best manage your breathing through all the stages of labour right up to delivery. Breathing is important during labour. But it’s worthwhile understanding why it’s important, what benefits it can bring, and how you can make it work for you.
Why Breathing is Important
The breathing techniques developed by Dr Lamaze in the 1960s were broadly aimed at three outcomes:
- Reducing fear of the unknown by providing information on what to expect
- Learning how to relax and become aware of your body, thereby reducing pain
- Distracting the mind from the discomfort by concentrating on conscious or deliberate breathing
The early breathing techniques were very prescriptive and specific. Over the years these techniques have given way to a much more individualised approach to breathing during childbirth, but the reasons behind managing your breathing remain the same.
While there are definitely some types of breathing more suited to particular stages of labour, the most important thing is breathing in a conscious and deliberate pattern that works for you. There is no one-size-fits-all solution. This is why it’s important during pregnancy to prepare yourself with a range of different techniques that you can use when you need to.
Different Breathing Techniques
During the course of labour, you will have the need for a range of different breathing techniques, depending on whether you are in the very early stages and wanting to relax and conserve energy, the transition phase where managing discomfort is paramount, or the delivery phase, where guiding baby gently into the world is your focus.
Soft Sleep Breaths – similar to the slow gentle breaths you take just before you fall asleep, this technique is used between contractions to conserve energy, focus and relax.
Blissful Belly Breaths – aimed at managing discomfort during contractions
Cleansing Calming Breaths – during probably the most uncomfortable phase of labour – transition – these breaths are used between contractions to maintain focus and calm.
Gentle Birthing Breaths – these are the breaths you use during the second stage of labour, when you are delivering baby. Rather than straining and pushing this breathing technique will help you bear down in a relaxed way. There are a number of benefits to both you and baby in using this technique. Baby has a much gentler birth, your tissues (especially the perineum) have a chance to stretch slowly, resulting in fewer stitches, and you are less likely to suffer afterwards with haemorrhoids.
Practice makes Perfect
One of the most important keys to being able to manage your breathing during childbirth is practice. In the weeks leading up to the birth, practice the different techniques that feel most natural to you, so that when the time comes they are second nature. It’s a great idea if your birth partner practices with you so that they can support you and help you focus during labour.
Additional Comfort Measures
Most of the studies that have been conducted around the benefits of deliberate breathing during labour have incorporated other complementary medicine techniques such as acupressure, meditation and massage. When combined, there is clear evidence these techniques improve the experience of labour, reduce discomfort and reduce the incidence of medical interventions like epidurals and stitches.
Incorporating these additional comfort measures into your birthing plan and preparation will set you up as best as possible for a positive birth experience.
Where do I Learn to Breathe?
Most childbirth classes will offer include training in how to master breathing during labour. They may use the techniques I outlined earlier, or the might take a slightly different approach. Whatever approach you decide to take is entirely up to you – there is no right or wrong.
A doula can help you understand a range of breathing techniques, will work with you to determine your preferred approach, and help you and your birth partner master the techniques before labour.
If you would like to understand the different breathing techniques and when to use them, or you would just like to chat about the type of birth you envision for yourself and your baby, I would love to chat with you. Call me on 0422 258 771 or contact me below:
Tearing – Prevention and Cure
One of the things that most concerns women when thinking about labour – apart from the contractions of course – is ‘tearing’. This refers to the tearing of the perineum and is unfortunately often part of giving birth. But there are a number of things you can do to avoid, or at least reduce tearing.
What is the perineum?
The perineum is the muscular area between the vagina and the anus. It supports the posterior (rear) wall of the vagina. During childbirth this area needs to soften and stretch to allow the head and shoulders of the baby to emerge safely.
For many years it was common practice to perform an episiotomy, a cut in the perineum either directly towards the anus, or angled down and away to the side, to help make room for the baby and avoid ‘tearing’. This is no longer standard practice unless there are real medical reasons as research has proved a natural tear carries less risks and heals better. These days episiotomies are only done if the baby is in distress and needs a quick delivery with forceps or vacuum, the cord is being crushed, or the labour has been very quick and the perineum has not had time to stretch at all.
How to Avoid Both
So how can you prepare your perineum for all the stretching it will have to do and hopefully avoid both tearing and an episiotomy?
Preparation is the key
In the later weeks of your pregnancy – from about 34 weeks on – you can start getting your perineum ready for birth.
Massage – daily massage will help relax and stretch the muscle. Your doula can show you how this is done. You can use vitamin E oil, coconut oil, or Perineal Massage Oil from Blissful Herbs, which contains calendula, rosehip and lavender.
Balloon – some women find massage difficult, and there are now a couple of devices a bit like a balloon on the market that you can insert and inflate to gently stretch the muscles. Your doula can let you know where to get these and how to use them.
Exercises – since your perineum is attached to the pelvic floor, the pelvic floor exercises you are probably already doing will help stretch this muscle. Your doula can recommend additional exercises that will not only relax the tissues of the perineum, but also prepare your body to give birth in an upright position and fully stretch your pelvis.
Protecting your Perineum during Labour
OK – so you’ve done all your exercises and your massage and now you’re in labour. What can you do to continue to protect your perineum?
Upright Birth – an upright position such as kneeling, squatting, standing or even on hands and knees will help the perineum begin to stretch early in labour by putting the pressure of the weight of the baby on the muscle.
Water Birth – a water birth has been shown to reduce the likelihood of tearing as it not only relaxes the perineal muscle, but relaxes the whole body and reduces anxiety.
Perineal Compress – holding warm damp towels against the area, especially during pushing and when the baby is crowning, not only relaxes the muscle but provides it a little extra support.
Baby’s Position – the optimum birth position for your baby is Occiput Anterior. This means head down, facing mum’s spine. In this position the head is at the best angle to come through the birth canal and vagina. If your baby is not in this position it is sometimes possible to ‘spin’ your baby. Your doula or midwife can give you advice on this.
Time – As long as neither you nor your baby are in distress, take your time. Listen to your body. It will tell you when you need to push. When the baby is crowning – the head is coming out – you will probably feel what we call ‘the ring of fire’. If you can, don’t rush this stage, as this is when you are most likely to tear. Allow the tissues time to stretch slowly.
If – despite all your best efforts – you ended up with a perineal tear or an episiotomy, there are a few things you need to know that will help reduce discomfort, and speed up healing.
Inflatable ring – as much as possible, try to sit on an inflatable ring to reduce pressure on the area.
Hygiene – keeping the area clean and dry is really important. It may sting when you you go the toilet. If it does, pour warm water over the area to dilute the urine. After a bath or shower use a hair dryer on the area, not a towel.
Cold packs – can help to reduce swelling.
Wound care – Blissful Herbs have a Soothing Salve and Post Natal Bliss Healing Bath Herbs that can help support the healing of the perineum and reduce pain.
Your doula can help you with ensuring your perineum is in top shape for delivery and help protect it during birth. If you would like to talk about anything related to your pregnancy and birth plans or concerns, I would love to chat with you.
Managing Pain in Childbirth
Childbirth is tough. There’s no getting around it. And it is different for everyone. Some women find it centers in their back, others all in their belly. Some women find they can soldier through with few comfort measures, while others find it just about unbearable. Every woman and every labour is different. Fortunately, there are also many different ways you can manage the challenge.
There is an intimate connection between the mind and the body in labour, and it is well documented that if we can relax one, the other will follow. So it is important to consider both physical and mental comfort when thinking about managing your labour. The first and single most important thing is to choose a birthing environment and team that you feel confident and comfortable with. This will set you up with the best possible chance of achieving the birth you want. Remember, you are the one who is labouring, so the choice is yours.
Non-Medical Pain Relief in Labour
Birthing Doulas are trained in the delivery of a wide range of non-medical relief:
Breathing, Meditation, Mindfulness, Afirmations and Relaxation Exercises
Particularly in the early stages of labour, many women find that breathing exercises, meditation and relaxation exercises help. Not only do they give you something to focus on, but they help reduce anxiety, which in turn helps to reduce discomfort. Practice mindfulness and breathing exercises during your pregnancy so that when you are in labour you can use them when you need them. Your doula will have suggestions, or you can find exercises online.
It is also worthwhile to develop some affirmations that you can use during labour. Write them down, and teach them to your support team. You might not ever use them during your labour, but the act of creating them will impart a positive mindset.
The use of essential oils can help in relaxing the mind and creating the sort of environment in which you want to give birth. Young Living and doTerra create lovely oil blends that are ideal for relaxing. Choose scents that appeal to you, but try to aim for something with lavender, clary sage, bergamot, rose, peppermint or lemon, as they promote calm and relaxation.
Being comfortable in the environment in which you are labouring can help keep you calm and relaxed.
Bright, harsh lights can create stress, so consider the lighting in the room. If you are at home you might like to use candles. Battery-operated LED flameless candles are a practical alternative, and more acceptable in most birthing centres and hospitals.
Music can also have a huge effect on the atmosphere in the room. Prior to labour consider what music you might like. Ideally, you should aim for something calming and relaxing. White noise is often a good choice. Waves can also be good as they echo the ebb and flow of contractions.
Hot and Cold Packs
Heat packs are particularly helpful when you are experiencing your labour in your lower back. They can be used on the abdomen, but care should be taken that they are not too hot, and not left on for a prolonged period. A warm compress can also provide relief for the perineum in the early stages of pushing.
Cold packs, or cool damp towels can be comforting on the forehead or back of the neck.
Warm Shower or Bath
A warm shower or bath relaxes the muscles that are working so hard during labour. Buoyancy can help you relax and relieve pressure and discomfort. Allowing a warm shower to fall on your back is particularly good for back pain. Not to mention the overall muscle relaxation of a bath or shower.
A water birth provides you with this comfort throughout your labour, can soften the perineum and provides baby with a peaceful transition from womb to world.
Different positions can provide relief during labour, depending on where you are ‘feeling’ your contractions – what is uncomfortable in one position can be alleviated in another. Generally, the more upright you are able to stay the better. Upright positions work with gravity to help labour progress, and the pressure of the baby’s weight on the birth canal will help you dilate. Leaning forward over the back of a chair or on a beanbag can help, and puts you in a great position for your partner or doula to massage your back.
As with an upright position, moving around if you are able to can help move labour along, and provide some relief, particularly from back pain. Rocking, swaying, walking and dangling often help. Some women even like to dance. Whatever movement helps you is OK.
Massage, Light touch and Effleurage
Some women don’t like to be touched during labour but it can help relax muscles and provide comfort and reassurance. Studies have shown that when we flood the body with pleasurable feelings, painful ones are blocked. This is known as the Gate Control Theory. Massage and Effluerage decreases cortisol (the stress hormone) and increases endorphins, serotonin and dopamine production.
Deep massage through the back and hips can help as the hips expand to allow the baby passage.
Light touch or Effleurage uses gentle strokes without pressure, unlike deeper massage. Stroking down the arms, legs and back can feel lovely, as well as light strokes on the hair and scalp.
TENS stands for Transcutaneous Electrical Nerve Stimulation. Through small electrodes that are placed on the skin a TENS machine provides small electrical pulses that can relieve muscle tension and stimulate production of endorphins. The beauty of this device is that it is portable, so you can move around, and the electrodes are easily relocated if the pain you are experiencing shifts. TENS can be ideal for women who don’t wish to be touched.
If you have had good results with acupuncture during your pregnancy, you may find it helpful in labour. Some hospitals have staff trained in acupuncture, but in general you will need to engage your own practitioner.
If you are uncomfortable with the idea of needles, Acupressure can work just as well, and has the added benefit that you can do it yourself when you feel you need it. You might also like to try counter pressure. If you are feeling your contractions in your back, having one of your support team press firmly on your sacrum while you are on your hands and knees can help enormously.
When we are near someone we love – like a partner – our body releases oxytocin and endorphins, which are ‘feel good’ hormones. Having your partner close, maintaining eye contact, kissing, and even intimate stimulation can help during labour. Some women find this difficult – especially if there is a cast of thousands in the room – but if you are comfortable with the idea, it will very likely speed up labour and reduce discomfort.
Medical Pain Relief in Labour
Often called laughing gas by dentists, Nitrous Oxide has the benefit of being self administered – so you control when you need it. It doesn’t remove all pain but ‘takes the edge off’. It may cause nausea or disorientation, but doesn’t last long in the body. However, for about 30% of women it doesn’t provide much relief.
Pethidine is related to morphine and is generally injected into the thigh or buttock. Whilst it does provide relief, it can also cause dizziness, nausea and disorientation. It does cross the umbilical cord to the baby, and can reduce respiration and reflexes.
An epidural is delivered via the injection of anaesthetic into the lining of your spinal cord through your back. An epidural probably delivers the most effective relief available in labour. You will still feel a sensation of pressure during a contraction, but not pain, and will remain alert. The downside of an epidural is that you will be unable to get up and move around, which reduces the positive effects of gravity. It may also affect your blood pressure, so you are usually given a fluid drip, and a catheter as sensation in your bladder will be affected.
The most important thing when thinking about pain management in labour is to be kind to yourself. Don’t ever feel you are being weak by asking for relief. You are the only one who knows what your labour feels like, so don’t be afraid to ask for what you want, or to change your mind about going drug free if you feel you need to. The aim here is simply to deliver a healthy happy baby to a healthy happy mum.
If you would like to know more about pain relief in labour, or talk about your pregnancy and birthing plans or concerns, I would love to hear from you.