Relaxing is not an easy thing to do on demand. It is a skill that requires practise. It’s really important that you take time out to relax during your pregnancy whether that is taking a pregnancy yoga class, making time for a long soak in the bath, or just taking the time to listen to your hypnobirthing tracks. Your baby will feel the benefit as much as you do and it can also be a great way to start bonding with your baby.
The Benefits of good breathing
One of the most significant ways of helping you stay in a calm and relaxed state during your labour is through breathing. As we’ve already mentioned, the body needs a huge amount of oxygen to keep it working smoothly and efficiently during labour.
If we take a minute to look at what happens to the body when we lose control of our breathing then it is really clear to see just how important it is to focus on calm, rhythmic breathing.
When you're tense and frightened, your breathing becomes rapid and shallow, cutting down the amount of oxygen that your body can use for yourself and your baby. You will hold tension in your neck and shoulder muscles, making it difficult to relax. You may move into a state of panicked breathing, sucking the air into your lungs and breathing out in short, sharp gasps.
You may feel light-headed and out of control as a result of panic-breathing. You may experience pins and needles in your fingers and your mouth might start to feel a little numb.
Panic-breathing is a common and normal reaction to frightening or stressful situations. Your body, however, is unable to maintain this state for long without becoming exhausted. During labour though, the aim is to conserve as much energy as possible.
Calm, deep breathing ensures that you are getting as much oxygen as you need whilst also helping you stay as relaxed as possible.
What breathing techniques can I use?
Deep breathing exercises are taught in all types of meditation and yoga classes as a way of connecting with the mind and body, at the same time helping you to relax and release stress. This practice can also be applied throughout labour – perhaps most effectively during the middle of a contraction. It is not really important which technique you use, just that you take nice, deep, regular breaths. Using a specific technique though can help you maintain focus and keep your breathing regular. Here are some techniques that you can try:
Try sitting still for a moment, close your eyes and breathe in steadily. Focus on your breathing and notice how rhythmic it is. You’ll start to feel everything around you slow down and you’ll become aware of the rhythm and pace of your natural breathing.
You breathe in and then pause slightly before breathing out. Notice that your out-breath matches your in-breath in both length and depth. You pause slightly again before you take your next breath in.
Breathing in gradually and steadily and then out again, using the same rythmic breathing, will help you stay focused and relaxed. Make sure that the in-breath doesn't become longer than the out-breath. If anything, your out-breath should be longer than your in-breath.
Another common breathing technique is manage the pace of your breathing through counting. As you breathe in count slowly to three or four (or whatever number seems comfortable to you). Count slowly again as you breathe out and release the air from your lungs. You might find that it’s more comfortable to count to three on your in-breath and to four on your out-breath. That’s fine, you just need to go with what feels most natural to you.
Think of the word "relax". It has two syllables, "re" and "lax". As you breathe in, think "re" to yourself, and as you breathe out, think "lax". Keep your mind focussed on repeating the word "relax"' in tune with your breathing.
When you breathe out, try to release any tensions in your body. If it helps you can close your eyes and imagine that each breath that you take is a colour (whichever colour you choose). Imagine this flows around your body and then changes colour as it leaves your body. the first colour represents the oxygen you are taking into your body, the second colour represents any stress and tension as it leaves your body.
Focus on the muscles that you know become tense when you're stressed. Remember, every time you breathe out, "laaaax". The out-breath is the one to focus on, as the in-breath takes care of itself.
'Horse lips' breathing
When we are anxious or stressed we often hold tension in our jaw. Horse lips breathing is a quick and easy breathing technique to help release that tension.
As you breathe out loosly puff your lips and allow them to flap and vibrate as the air is exhaled. Imagine a horse neighing or blowing a raspberry without sticking your tongue out!
This breathing technique also helps the cervix, pelvic floor and perineum relax and open ready for birth.
This is an excercise that you can practise together as a couple. Dad/Birth partner should sit on the floor with their back supported (against a wall/sofa). Mum should then sit between his legs, with her back to him and lean back into him until you are both comfortable. Dad/Birth partner should wrap your arms around Mum and rest your hands on the bump. When you are feeling relaxed and comfortable:
1. Close your eyes. Notice each others breathing. Don't intenetionally change your breathing to match your partners (although this may occur naturally). What do you notice? Do you breathe at the same pace? Mums this should feel quite comforting and safe - being close to and supportd by your partner. Open your eyes when you're ready.
2. Close your eyes. This time, Mum I would like you to continue to breathe normally, at your usual pace. Dad/Birth partner, I would like you to concentrate on Mums breathing and try and match your breathing to hers. How easy is this? Mums, how does it feel when your partner matches their breathing to yours? It should feel nice and comforting. Open your eyes when you're ready.
3. Close your eyes. I would like you to repeat step 2 until your breathing is synched. Once you are breathing at the same pace, Mum I would like you to imagine that you are experiencing some stress or anxiety (imagine for example a stranger has entered the room and made you feel a little anxious as you don't know who they are). Change the pace of your beathing to reflect this stress (increase the pace to a more 'panicked' breathing). Dad/Birth partner, as soon as you notice this change in Mums breathing I want you to exaggerate your own breathing so it is very deep, long breaths. What do you both notice? Mums it should be very difficult to maintain a state of 'panicked' breathing when your partner exaggerates his breathing. You should find that your breathing naturally calms and matches the slower, more exaggerated breathing of your partner. Open your eyes when you're ready.
This is a great exercise to use in any situation where panic begins to take hold or Mum is finding it difficult to maintain calm and relaxed breathing. The exercise is also really effective when done face-to-face (it's not always possible to sit in this embrace together). Dad/Birth partner just position yourself so that you can look directly into each others eyes and use the same principle of breathing very deeply and slowly. Mums you should, again, find it very difficult to stay with your 'panicked' breathing and your breathing should calm and match your partners. Facing each other also feels very intimate and can help refocus away from anything else that is happening in the room.
Waves of Relaxation
This breath is for use during contractions. It can really help you to focus and for the contraction to pass seemingly quickly if your attention is elsewhere. This technique uses visualisation as a form of distraction, whilst also giving a meaning to the sensations going on in your body.
I’d like you to close your eyes and imagine that you are standing at the edge of the sea shore, with waves lapping at your feet. Take a nice deep breath in and, as you do, I’d like you to imagine a wave rising, either up over your body (in line with the sensations that you’re experiencing with the uterus contracting) or nearby you in the sea. As you breathe out, imagine the wave crashing down.
The association of the waves is powerful, natural and at the same time calming.
This should be a long, deep breath. Practise this a few times and, when you feel confident, get your partner to time you for a minute and see how many breaths you do in that time. It can be a really helpful mental goal to know that it only takes 3/4/5 of those breaths for your contraction to pass.
You can of course adapt this visualisation to suit you.
Counting Down to your Special Place
Think of a place that is special to you in some way or that only has positive associations for you. This could be somewhere from your childhood, a place where you’ve been on holiday or just somewhere that is familiar and comforting to you such as snuggled up on your sofa or in bed at home. Once you have a place in mind, gently close your eyes and focus on your breathing.
I’d like you to do a series of 10 deep breaths. As you breath out each time I want you to count down, starting at ’10’ with the first out breath, then ‘9’ and so on until you reach ‘0’. Once you reach ‘0’ I’d like you to imagine yourself in your ‘special place’. You can stay here as long as you like, visualising your surroundings.
Eyes Open Hypnosis
This is a really quick and easy way of helping you get into a light state of hypnosis - a great way to distract and relax you when needed.
With your eyes open, focus on a point in front of you. Keep your eyes relaxed and your focus nice and soft. Now I’d like you to do a series of 5 breaths, keeping your eyes open. As you breathe out count ‘5’, then on the next breathe ‘4’ and so on until you reach ‘0’. Each time you breathe out, soften your focus slightly.
You can hold this soft focus gaze for as long as you need to.
This is a method of consciously relaxing your whole body and taking you into a light state of hypnosis. It is easy to do by yourself, or for your birth partner to guide you through. If you do yoga, Shavasana is a form of fractional relaxation which may be familiar to you.
This can be done in any position, just make sure that you are as comfortable as possible then gently close your eyes. Start at the top of your head and then gradually work down your body, making a conscious effort to relax every part of your body as you go down. Relax your forehead, your eyebrows, your eyes, your nose, your mouth, your jaw….and so on, going down your torso, arms and legs until you reach your feet and toes.
You can do this alone, or your birth partner can guide you by listing all the areas of your body to help you focus.
You can access a printable handout which covers all of these breathing techniques by clicking on the button below. You can have a copy packed in your hospital bag.
The mind has a very powerful influence over the body. We've already looked at how fear and anxiety can have a negative impact on the body, causing tension in the muscles and leading to pain.
Hypnobirthing is about harnessing the mind to help you relax effectively during labour. The more you practise that process of relaxing deeply, the easier it becomes to get yourself into a calm and relaxed on demand.
There are plenty of techniques that you can use during labour to help focus your mind and help you stay calm and in control. Click on the button below for details of some that you may like to try.
Try the breathing techniques and see which ones feel right for you. Practise them whenever you get a chance (in the queue at the post office, on your train to work - nobody else will know you are doing them!). Make them part of your daily routine. Particularly use them if you feel stressed or anxious at all - notice how effective they are and how quickly you feel calm and in control again.