Practicing for Labor

Breathing techniques for labor

No matter what your birth experience, breathing techniques can help make it faster and easier. Practicing them for several weeks before your delivery can delay or eliminate the need for pain medication during childbirth. You will no doubt learn Lamaze or other breathing techniques if you take a childbirth class. Although there are variations, the point of most of these exercises is to teach you to focus your energy and work with your body as your baby makes her way into the world.

Paced breathing. Once labor contractions get so regular or intense that you have to stop a conversation or halt your activities, it's time to start your paced breathing. Practice paced breathing techniques every day, starting at least 2 months before your due date:

  • Take a deep breath to fill your lungs completely and exhale it.
  • Channel your energy by focusing on one spot on the wall, ceiling, or floor (depending on your position).
  • When your coach says, "Contraction begins," take 5-10 deep breaths for a minute. As you inhale, place your hands on the lower part of your abdomen and stroke gently upward toward your ribs. As you exhale, let your hands glide back down. Massaging the uterus during a contraction can help ease the discomfort, much like massaging a cramp in your leg. Your coach should count out a minute in 15-second intervals so that you can track the time and peak of each contraction: "15, 30, 45, 60."
  • Breathe normally when your coach says, "Contraction ends."
  • Practice your paced breathing exercises in all of the basic labor positions -- sitting in a chair, reclining on pillows, lying on your side, standing, and kneeling against a large ball or bed.

Modified paced breathing. In active stage 1 labor -- when your cervix has dilated about 5 centimeters -- the slow, deep breaths of paced breathing may no longer be enough to get you through a contraction. Then it's time to modify your paced breathing to keep up with the pace and intensity of labor. Practice modified paced breathing, starting at least 6 weeks before your delivery date. Doing it daily will help you master conditioned responses to your labor coach's commands:

  • Take a deep, relaxing breath.
  • When the coach says, "Contraction begins," start with your slow breathing. Accelerate your inhale-exhale pattern as the contraction builds and peaks, using faster, lighter breathing. It will help if your coach counts out each contraction for a minute, "15, 30, 45, 60 seconds," so that you'll know when to start slowing your breathing again. Generally your contraction will peak around 30 seconds, and you can slow your breathing after that.
  • There is no one right time to start modified breathing, or one right pace. Generally you'll be breathing at twice your normal rate. The important thing is that your breathing should be regular, and you should take in the same amount of air that you exhale. If you feel light-headed, that means you're breathing in more oxygen than you're exhaling; if you find that your breaths are shallow, you're probably letting out more air than you're inhaling.
  • You may still find that massaging your uterus, as described on the previous page, helps you keep time and get through the contraction. However, some women find the extra sensation too overwhelming and have to stop at this point. Ask your partner to massage your thighs or back instead.

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