For such a natural, innate, automatic function of the body, it’s amazing how this one seemingly simple action can affect you in so many profound ways. When they talk about “eating for two” in pregnancy, the same can be said for the breath, because everything you do with the breath can have a direct effect on your growing baby. You may have also heard the saying “what’s good for mum is good for baby”, this is also true.
So, what function does the breath have? Well, in its simplest form, it provides oxygen for the growth and development of cells in the body, and that of your baby. However, when manipulated, it can have a profound effect on your nervous system and stress response in the body, this too directly effects baby.
Simply changing where you direct the breath can alter your body’s response to a situation. Our body’s natural reaction in a stressful situation is to shorten the breath and restrict it to the chest area, this tells the body to switch to ‘fight or flight’ mode and our muscles tense as we ready ourselves for a quick response to a dangerous situation. This is important when we are faced with danger, reacting to an emergency or a life and death moment. When we take long deep breaths into the belly, the vagus nerve (which runs down the front of the body) is stimulated, which tells our body’s to switch to ‘rest & digest’ mode. This has a calming effect on the systems of the body, essentially relaxing our muscles and slowing everything down. If you look at a baby breath, their belly naturally moves in and out with the breath, which is our natural state of breathing. Given that is the natural rhythm of breath from birth, it’s curious then that as a society we’ve typically taught ourselves to become “chest breathers”. Does this mean, to a certain extent, that we exist in a state of some level of stress all the time? In any case, it’s an interesting concept when we consider times of stress and how our breath can effect our response.
So what constitutes a time of stress? Many things stress us out – work, dangerous situations, traffic, fear for our kids, busy lifestyles. Then of course, there’s pain. Pain is usually an indication of something stressing the body, as it’s the body’s way of telling us that something is wrong. And this brings me to my point, and I promise there is a point – in childbirth, pain serves a very different purpose and our body’s natural reaction to stress is actually counter productive. The pain of childbirth can be very intense, however it’s not an indication that something is wrong, it’s actually the natural, necessary process of labour. In fact, increased pain tells us that things are progressing as they should be (in most cases) Of course, particularly if it’s your first child, the intensity of contractions can be unexpected and cause the body to automatically engage a stress response. This stress response causes us to tense at a time when we need everything to relax and allow the natural process of childbirth to occur. So how do we switch off our body’s natural reaction to pain? It’s a conundrum!
My mum gave birth to 4 very large babies, yes I was 10lbs myself! No one spoke to her about breathing techniques (or pelvic floor, but that’s another story) She took pethadine for her first three, but it wasn’t until her fourth birth, in a US hospital, that the midwife began to coach her through some breathing techniques to help control the pain. She no longer needed the pethadine and she said it was the easier birth (I say that lightly) because she felt in control. Let me just pause here to say this is not a debate about anti or pro drugs, this is purely about the breath. Of course, this was over 30 years ago and things have changed since then, right?! I was equally surprised then, after hearing a friends recount of her first birthing experience, that her coping mechanism during contractions was to hold her breath. When I asked if anyone had spoken to her about the breathing for labour, she just raised her eyebrows. This was the same response I got when I asked my prenatal yoga class if anyone had spoken to them about pelvic floor – “no, just you.” Again, this is a discussion for later…
Essentially, in preparation for labour, we want to train ourselves to be able to use the breath to calm the body, going against our body’s automatic reaction. When you’re in the throes of unfamiliar pain, breath control will be the first thing to go and you’ll want to clam up. It did for me, the midwife had to remind me to breath and I teach this for a living! So, the more you practice, the more chance you have of it being second nature. The most basic technique is to simply breath long and deep into your belly, but the trick is to control your exhalations. You know the old saying, when somethings getting to you take a long deep breath and count to 10? Well, this is pretty much on the mark. Keep this in mind when you hit the toddler years too!
So, to get you started, find a comfy position and close your eyes. Over the next few breaths just concentrate on slowing the breath down. Try to draw the breath into your belly, so it rises and falls with the breath. Over the next few breaths, inhale to a count of 4, then exhale to the same count of 4. Slowly work towards increasing this count, remember it’s more about a slow, controlled exhale. Next time you feel tense or stressed, take 5 and give it a try. How does it feel? Of course, taking a moment to breath because some maniac cut you off while driving is very different than riding out a contraction, but it’s a start.
Part two of the blog feature will run you through several breathing techniques you can use in labour. See you then!
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