Updated: Jan 7, 2021
When I tell people that I am a Childbirth Educator, a common response is- "Oh, the classes with the breathing exercises?"
Even though breathing is one of the many topics covered in class, I feel like its importance is often overlooked. In essence, it activates your parasympathetic nervous system- which is also the simplest way to describe what Birth Doulas do, too!
Of all the many things that Birth Doulas do before and during a birth, the main goal is to help you feel relaxed, comfortable, cared for, and informed; which all activates the parasympathetic nervous system.
Our goal is to provide this care to your partner too, because if they are relaxed during the birth, you are more likely to feel relaxed and share this beautiful experience together.
The parasympathetic nervous system often needs to be activated during labour because the sympathetic nervous system is often activated too. Your sympathetic nervous system is your "fight or flight" response. Nature made us this way so that we can protect ourselves from a real or perceived threat, and when activated during labour, progress can stall or even stop.
When your body releases stress hormones, your body asks; "what is it making me feel unsafe?" Your heart rate and blood pressure increase, which makes your breath rate faster. Oxygen flow to your uterus is reduced, making contractions slow or stop, and oxygen flow is increased in your extremities so you can fight or flee from the potential threat.
The thing is- so many things can cause a rise in stress hormones (the activation of your sympathetic nervous system) other than real danger. It is natural to feel a level of fear during labour, but having someone there to help you navigate your options or tell you everything is going exactly the way it should be can make a huge impact. So can a cool cloth to your forehead, counter-pressure to your hips, a heat pack to your lower back, and assistance to keep your breathing nice and slow and deep- your sounds low- your parasympathetic nervous system activated. 💕
Deep breathing also helps supply your muscles with oxygen, which can help reduce pain. It can also be a welcome distraction.
*You can practice "slow breathing", taking 5-12 breaths per minute, inhaling quickly and exhaling slowly, allowing yourself to pause before inhaling again. You can sign or moan as you exhale, keeping your sounds low. You could try relaxing your mouth completely as you exhale, which makes your lips vibrate and is also known as "horse lips".
*"Variable breathing" is commonly referred to as "hee-hee-HAW" or "pant-pant-blow", two quick breaths followed by a long exhale.
*"Slide breathing" involves a deep inhale followed by exhaling with 3-4 puffs of air.
These breathing exercises and more can be found in "Pregnancy, Childbirth and the Newborn" by Penny Simkin, Janet Whalley, Ann Keppler, Janelle Durham and April Bolding.
Best wishes in breathing through labour!