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Breathing and relaxation techniques for labor and delivery

​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​​Everyone can benefit from learning the fundamentals of controlled breathing and relaxation. The ability to relax and breathe properly will help you throughout pregnancy and labor.

Your labor coach should understand these techniques to give you encouragement and assistance during labor.

Whether you choose Lamaze®, Bradley, or another technique, the key is to understand the birth process and how the technique will help you cope with the stages of labor and delivery. You and your coach should practice the exercises daily so you are familiar with them. It also might help you fall asleep if you practice at bedtime.

Most of your breathing throughout labor will be either controlled abdominal or chest breathing – whatever method is most comfortable for you.

Basic breathing fundamentals

  • Cleansing breath: A deep sigh that fully expands your lungs upon inhaling, and releases air upon exhaling. You should always take a cleansing breath when you feel your contraction begin, and when the contraction is finished.

  • Abdominal breathing: Breathe in gently and slowly with your mouth closed, allowing the abdominal wall to rise as far as possible. Then breathe out through your mouth, dropping the abdominal wall. The chest remains still. Try placing your hands gently on each side of your abdomen and feel the abdominal wall expand as you inhale, and relax as you exhale.

  • Chest breathing: Place your hands on the sides of your rib cage. Your abdomen will remain fairly still, but you will feel your chest wall move outward when you inhale and inward when you exhale.

  • Panting: Open your mouth and pant, like a dog. Take quick, shallow breaths. You may need to breathe this way during transition when your contractions are very strong, or when it is necessary to slow down the baby’s birth to prevent tears, especially while the head and shoulders are being delivered. If you become light-headed and your hands tingle, you are hyperventilating. This could happen if you inhale too deeply and/or practice this technique for too long.

  • Spontaneous “pushing”: During the second stage of labor, you may let the spontaneous pushing urges determine when and how to push. This allows you to follow the natural urge to bear down. You can enhance this effort through:
    • Upright positioning
    • Frequent position changes
    • Keeping arms and legs relaxed
    • Making “noises” rather than prolonged breath holding and bearing down
    • Focusing on pushing efforts

(Do not practice pushing. You can visualize the second stage of labor, what you may feel, and how you will respond to this urge.)

  • Breath holding: This breathing technique may be used during the second stage of labor, during contractions. You exert a downward pressure on the diaphragm and abdominal cavity and therefore, on the top of the uterus, while you are holding your breath to help push the baby out. (Do not push while practicing)

Relaxation techniques

Relaxation techniques used with controlled breathing will offer you better control during your labor and delivery. The ability to relax will conserve energy throughout the first stage of labor. Consciously relaxing between contractions makes the breaks more restful. You will also find more strength for the second (pushing) stage of labor. With concentration and practice, you will recognize even a small amount of tension.

To help with relaxation:

  • Allow time and take care of any matter that needs your attention so that you will not be interrupted.
  • ​Wear loose fitting clothing
  • Empty your bladder
  • Turn on some relaxing music
  • Find a comfortable position in which your body is well supported, using pillows as necessary

After you have settled into a comfortable position, close your eyes and imagine you’re surrounded by beautiful scenes. Picture a scene or object that you find relaxing and safe; examples might include a garden, favorite picnic spot, a warm bath, or on a beach. Think of the sights you would see, the sounds you would hear, and the sensations you would feel. ​

Progressive relaxation helps you learn to consciously relax your muscles by learning to feel the difference between tensed and relaxed muscles. Consciously tensing and relaxing your muscles will help you during your labor. As with other skills, practice is essential to reach effectiveness.

Practice relaxation techniques daily for periods of 15 to 30 minutes.

Taking the time to relax every day may prevent the build-up of tension and fatigue. The ability to relax is also valuable for other times in your life when tension develops.