The Very Best Relaxation and Breathing Techniques for Labor: Birth Tips Every Mama Needs!
By Liesel Teen, BSN, RN
Mama, as you prepare for the big day, learning about relaxation and breathing techniques for labor is SUCH a good idea!
One thing I’m constantly telling women in the labor and delivery room, and in the MLN community, is that birth is SUCH a mental game. And because of this, mindset is super important.
In this article, you’ll learn about the benefits of breathing techniques for birth, as well as six effective ways to breathe during birth. Then, we’ll get into some specific relaxation techniques for labor, too!
Why learn about breathing and relaxation strategies ahead of birth?
Here’s the thing, mama. Whether you plan to birth with an epidural or not, you’re going to have to manage at least some degree of labor pain – so preparing natural pain management strategies is key.
And guess what? Breathing and relaxation techniques for labor are a super-effective tool for the job! Preparing your birthing toolbox with as many strategies as possible is so important.
In the Mommy Labor Nurse Online Birth Classes, we have an entire lesson dedicated to breathing! But this article is going to be a great primer. So, let’s go!
Breathing during labor and delivery
The power of breath is something we tap into in all aspects of life, and for birth, I might go as far as to say it is the single most effective tool for coping with the extreme pain of labor.
Breath is quite literally what gives us life, and when we focus in on our breathing, or breathe with certain patterns and intentions, we can calm and center our minds.
As you probably know, breathing is an integral part of meditation and yoga, and is taught as a coping mechanism for anxiety, anger, and other mental health challenges.
We teach it to little ones to help them manage big feelings, and we subconsciously use the breath in different ways to collect our thoughts and center ourselves all day long.
Why is breathing so effective for managing pain and other uncomfortable feelings?
Well, a change in breath is actually a natural response in all human bodies that is part of our fight-or-flight reflex.
Our brains basically automatically change our breathing in stressful situations because when we take deep breaths, it stimulates the part of our nervous system that will increase oxygenation in our blood. This then triggers the release of endorphins in our brain (source).
All of that’s a fancy way of saying deep breaths literally help our brains release more happy, calming hormones into our body to help temper the perception of pain.
So, what I want you to think about as you go through this article, is the idea of leveraging breath (with the techniques described below) and this natural fight or flight response, as a means to manage pain, anxiety, and fear during your upcoming birth!
Benefits of patterned breathing for birth
When we talk about breath as a tool for managing pain and emotion, patterned breathing is the buzzword that often comes up. Essentially, patterned breathing is an umbrella term that describes many different ways you can manipulate breath for a desired result.
With patterned breathing, you consciously alter your breathing speed, depth, and frequency to create a sense of calm and focus. And there are a ton of benefits to using these kinds of techniques during the first and second stages of labor!
Let’s take a look:
The use of breathing exercises with deep inhalation reduces the perception of labor pain and is associated with a shorter second stage of delivery (the pushing part!) (source)
Alright, now that you understand just how powerful simply breathing in the right way can be, let’s look at some specific techniques! You will have to figure out which breathing techniques works best for YOU during labor.
I’m hesitant to tell you to definitely use one method or another, because I really believe that we all respond differently! But what I can say as a definite, this is something I want you to practice before you’re actually in labor.
Breathing as a means of pain and emotional management is a skill and it’s a skill we want to develop and master before the big day. Here’s a few tips on how to practice:
Practice your breathing techniques while holding an ice cube! The ice cube creates definite discomfort and triggers a stress response, and you can really test out your breathing skills well with this exercise.
Use meditation to help you practice breathing. I used meditation as a way to calm my fears and anxiety during pregnancy (in preparation for birth!) a LOT the second time around. I highly recommend this!
Driving is another time you can practice. Don’t get so relaxed that you’re not paying attention, hah. But this is a time of day where you might be alone and able to focus on the breath.
Use these techniques to help you fall asleep. Pregnancy insomnia is real, you guys! Practicing and developing these breathing skills might also help combat insomnia.
Okay, now let’s look at some specific ways to do it:
SLOW, DEEP, BELLY BREATHING
Slowly inhale through your nose and exhale through your mouth, allowing all your air to flow out with a sigh.
Pause until your body automatically takes the next breath in.
Focus on filling your body with air and allow your belly to grow with each deep inhale. (source)
One tip that many moms like is to try and focus on relaxing a different part of your body with each exhale you do, going from head to toe or vice versa.
LIGHT ACCELERATED BREATHING
This is a technique that many use as their contractions become more intense.
As your breathing rate increases toward the peak of your contraction, breathe in and out lightly only through your mouth.
Keep your breathing shallow and light at a rate of about one breath per second and try not to breathe any quicker than this rate. (source)
This provides a calming effect for some women at the peak of a contraction – others prefer to stay focused on their slow, deep belly breathing. Play around with it to see if it works for you!
This is a technique where you combine light breathing with a deep exhale. This is often how breathing during birth is portrayed in movies and media (hee-hee-who).
To do this, you’re going to breathe through your mouth in light shallow breaths at a rate of 5-20 breaths in 10 seconds, throughout the contraction.
Then after a few of these shallow breaths, you’re going to blow out a long slow breath. (source)
Cleansing breaths are essentially the same thing as the slow, deep, belly breathing described above. This is a breathing technique that is often taught to manage stress and anxiety, and it’s SO effective during labor.
Basically, you are going to breathe in deeply through your nose to take in as much air as you can, then when you exhale really focus on emptying your lungs completely.
PACED BREATHING TECHNIQUES
With paced breathing techniques, you will control the length of time that you inhale, hold, and exhale while breathing. There are a few different ways to do this, and you can find what you respond best to:
4-7-8 Breathing: Inhale for 4 seconds through the nose, hold for 7 seconds, exhale for 8 seconds out the mouth
Box or Square Breathing: This is where you inhale, hold, and exhale for the same lengths of time. You can adapt this breathing technique for a length of time that is sustainable for you – most often people use a 4-4-4 pattern, but anywhere from 2-6 seconds can do the job!
Long exhalations: In this breathing technique, you are aiming to exhale for double the length of time as your inhale. For example, inhale for 4 then do an extended exhale for 8 counts
Yoga “variation” breathing: In this type of breathing, you inhale and exhale through your nose only, and keep your mouth closed with the tip of your tongue at the spot where your teeth meet the roof of your mouth. This tongue placement is SO good for labor because it forces you to keep your jaw relaxed. And a relaxed jaw = a more open pelvis!
OTHER TIPS FOR BREATHING DURING LABOR:
Color breathing: With this technique, visualize your body filling with a color as you breath in, and then visualize the color leaving your body or changing as your breath out. This can be adapted to be breathing in warmth, strength, anything you want to fill your body with
Visual breathing: In this technique you will connect your breathing with a visualization, common visualizations for birth are blooming flowers or waves crashing on a beach
Breathing with words of affirmation: To do this, you will basically breathe in one phrase and breathe out another. One I love – Breathing in: confidence, Breathing out: strength
Nitrous Oxide: I personally tried Nitrous during my first birth and didn’t love it because it really messed with my breathing pattern BUT some mamas actually say they opposite! For many, it actually helps them find more rhythmic breath and take away some of the pain perception. Just something to have on your radar!
Adding sound to the breath: Some mamas like to get loud during labor – and I actually love this! It’s so primal, and I think it help make those contractions more effective!! If this is you, I encourage you to keep your vocalizations deep and low (instead of shallow or high-pitched) for maximum effectiveness.
Have you ever heard the phrase “breathing down a baby”? I actually kind of love this as a way to think about pushing! Because that is essentially what you’re doing when you push, but it’s such a less daunting way to think about it.
In any case, to understand breathing during the second stage of labor (that’s the pushing part!), it’s helpful to learn about the two different styles of pushing – because the breathing during each is a little different.
OPEN GLOTTIS PUSHING
With open glottis pushing a health care provider and/or support person is there to encourage you to trust your body and support you as you push.
You push when you feel the urge to bear down/poop. And most women take several breaths between pushes.
You’ll probably push for about 5 seconds 3‐5 times during each contraction, and you may grunt or make a deep noise when you are pushing. This goes back to the idea of vocalization during contractions too, to me those deep noises are a sign that you are pushing effectively!
Blood flow to your uterus and baby isn’t affected with open glottis pushing, so there is less chance that baby will have heart rate changes.
There’s also a decreased risk of you getting so tired that you can’t push anymore, and less chance that you’ll tear!
Guided pushing is the type of pushing you typically see or hear in TV shows and movies, and that you might even think is more common in hospital settings.
With guided pushing, you will be coached to hold your breath for 6-10 seconds, bear down like you are pooping, and push about 3ish times with each contraction.
You may be asked not to make any noise while you push, which helps guide all your energy/breath towards your bottom where you are pushing.
With guided pushing, the blood flow to your uterus and baby can decrease, which can raise the chance that your baby will have heart rate changes.
There is also a higher chance that you will feel so tired you can’t push anymore, and a higher chance that you’ll tear.
A DISCUSSION ON THESE TWO WAYS TO PUSH
Okay so you may be wondering why everyone doesn’t do open glottis pushing if it’s better for you and baby. So let’s talk about it.
Open glottis pushing is awesome, and we encourage it when we can – especially with mamas birthing without an epidural. The only big problem with open glottis pushing is that it USUALLY increases your pushing time. This is okay…but if baby is unstable, we may ask you to do some guided pushing to speed up the process.
Open glottis pushing is also quite a bit harder to do if you have an epidural because it can be difficult to feel the waves of the contraction to time the pushing instinctually. For this reason, we usually advise our epidural mamas to try some guided pushing.
Also, open glottis is just not for everyone! It’s about what works best for you. And you can always do both!
I personally much preferred guided pushing during both of my unmedicated births, so it’s really impossible to know what’s going to feel best.
Related: Pushing Out a Baby: What Happens Right After Giving Birth?
Relaxation tips and techniques for labor
So, while we’re talking about breathing techniques for labor, I think it makes sense to include a discussion of relaxation, too! The main purpose of focusing on breath in labor is to relieve the perception of pain and reduce anxiety. And yep, promoting a sense of relaxation can do the same!
I know you might be thinking this sounds a little crazy. Relax? During birth? But believe me when I tell you just how effective a relaxing atmosphere and relaxation strategies can help with the overall experience!
Here are some concrete ways you can make your birth a more peaceful, calm, and relaxing experience:
Visualization and guided imagery
I talked about this a little bit in the additional breathing tips above, but the power of visualization and guided imagery cannot be understated! You can sync visualizations with the breath like I mentioned above, or you can do visualizations that transport you to another place.
GUIDED IMAGERY TO A PLACE IN NATURE
One recommendation I have is to choose a place (ideally in nature!) that you love and know very well. Hopefully, this is a spot your partner or support person might also know really well.
During labor, you can work to visualize yourself in this place, see yourself there, feel the breeze, and smell the smells. If you’re into this kind of thing, your partner can help describe it to you! This can be a wonderful source of distraction during active labor.YOU CAN ALSO TRY TYING VISUALIZATIONS WITH YOUR CONTRACTIONS
Again, I mentioned this in the breathing section, but it’s worth repeating here! Contractions are often described as waves or surges. You can try to tie each contraction to a visualization in your mind to help you ride it out. Ocean waves, ripples in the water, and blooming flowers all work well for this.
Meditation during birth
It’s no secret that I’m a big fan of meditation. And honestly, I would NOT describe myself as the “meditation type” at all, hah. You see, meditation is a practice that helps you connect to your body and mind, relieves tension and stress, and focuses your mind. All SO beneficial during labor.
What I don’t want you to do is try meditating for the first time once those contractions hit. In a lot of ways, meditation is a skill that you can practice and develop. I recommend getting started now while you’re pregnant, so that it’s there to tap into during birth, too.
I love the free meditation app Insight Timer, but I’ve also heard good things about Headspace and Oak Meditation.
Expectful is another one a lot of mamas in the MLN community mention, that’s a meditation app specific to fertility, pregnancy, and motherhood!
Soundscapes and music for labor
I know a lot of mamas that like quiet during their labors, but music or simply some nature-themed soundscapes can really set a relaxing tone and give mamas some focus! The thing I love about using music during labor is that you can use it to set the tone that fits YOUR personality.
So if calming and peaceful is you, go for some Enya or classical music, but if you thrive on energy or want to be pumped up, you can pick something more upbeat.
RESEARCH SUPPORTS THE USE OF MUSIC IN LABOR
And guess what? There’s some real merit to all of this. A 2019 review and analysis of 14 different research studies that looked at the effects of music on childbirth found that its use may decrease anxiety scores during labor! Pretty dang cool.
Another study from back in 2003 found that, “Soft music decreased both sensation and distress of active labor pain in the first three hours and delayed increases in the distress of pain for an hour. For some participants relief was fairly substantial.” (source)
So yeah, make those labor playlists, mama!
Different lighting options
Girl, hospital lights are literally the worst. Luckily, a lot of labor and delivery floors have come a long way, and many hospitals do have different levels of lighting that can dim, etc. in labor rooms. But some still just have those dang fluorescent overheads.
During your hospital tour, pay attention to and ask about lighting in the labor rooms. If your hospital doesn’t have dimmable, soft lighting, I really recommend bringing your own options! I’ve seen mamas bring little electric candles, a dimmable lamp, white twinkle lights, etc.
Mood is everything when it comes to relaxation during labor, and lighting can really make or break the feel of a space.
Mantras and birth affirmations
If you take either one of my Birth It Up birthing classes, you’ll hear me talk A LOT about the mental component of giving birth. Our minds can be one of our best assets to a better, more positive birth! And birth affirmations are one of my favorite ways to tap into that mental strength.
Birth affirmations are simply positive words or statements about the birth process that can give you extra confidence! You can repeat them regularly leading up to your birth (and yes, say them out loud, it makes ALL the difference) and use them during labor to help you focus and relax.
I recommend having them visually apparent during labor as a reminder (post-its or banners work well!), and also try to have your support person repeat them to you, too!
Here are a few that I LOVE:
“Each contraction has a purpose.”
“Breathe in strength, breathe out confidence.”
“I am proud of myself, however this birth goes.”
“Relax my body, release the tension.”
“I will meet my baby soon.”
Ready to take your birth preparation to the next level?
As you can see, there is a lot to learn and practice to help promote a calmer and more positive birth experience.
These tips and techniques about breathing and relaxation during labor are just one small and important piece of the puzzle!
Understanding the physiology and anatomy of labor, the process of childbirth, how to prepare your partner, and getting educated on interventions are all things we cover in our affordable and convenient online birth classes, Birth It Up!
There are options tailored to the type of birth you envision, so head on over and learn more about how we can help YOU have a better birth!
Related: Are Birthing Classes Necessary?