Breathing Exercises & Visualization

Breathing techniques

During labor and delivery, utilizing breathing techniques can help you relax and focus. It can also help you center yourself and make sure you don’t breathe in a way that can make labor and delivery more difficult. It may take practice to control your breathing, but you can do it. There are many techniques that can work, and you’ll probably find a hundred variations if you look up “breathing techniques” on the internet. But don’t worry if you can’t remember or are overwhelmed by all of the information. Ultimately, you should use what works for you. And the more you learn about different breathing techniques now, the better equipped you’ll be when it comes time to deliver your baby.

Remember, there is no single, right way for you to breathe. You should do what works and what feels best for you. Some of the techniques are:

Cleansing breath

A deep, cleansing breath can be helpful throughout your labor and delivery. It’s a deep, exaggerated breath that is most often taken in through the nose and out through the mouth. It’s also best if it’s a breath that originates from the abdomen rather than the chest. You can practice knowing where your breath is coming from by placing your hand on your belly and feeling the rise and fall. If you breathe from your abdomen, you will feel your belly rise first or at the same time as your chest. But if you breathe from your chest first, your chest will rise, but your abdomen will sink a bit. Abdominal or belly breathing is usually more effective in helping you relax, and it allows you to take in more air over a slower period.

Some women like to take a cleansing breath at the beginning of each contraction and then again once the contraction is over. It may also help you sigh or make another sound upon exhale.

There are many benefits of doing this type of breathing.

  • It brings extra oxygen to you and your baby.
  • It can act as a signal to your support person/people that your contraction is beginning and ending, which helps them know when their help may be needed.
  • It can help remind you that it’s time to focus your breathing to get you through the contraction.
  • It can help you have a mini-celebration after each contraction, reminding you that you did it — that you’re one step closer to getting to meet your child.

Focal point

Some women find it helpful to choose a focal point (or more than one) to concentrate on during contractions. It can work well along with breathing to enhance relaxation and find focus. You might want to close your eyes and focus on a peaceful scene, or you might find it more helpful to concentrate on an object in the room or your partner’s eyes. While you’re focusing on the scene or object, allow yourself to breathe quietly and concentrate on letting your body relax. You may feel warm and heavy, or you might feel like you’re in a bit of a trance. If you need to bring yourself out of it, breathe in deeply and stretch as you exhale.

Choose a word or short phrase to repeat with inhale and exhale

Choose a word or phrase that’s at least two syllables, and repeat it to yourself as you breathe, thinking half of the word/phrase on inhale and the second half on exhale. For example, try the word relax. Inhale while thinking “re,” and exhale thinking “lax.” A phrase might help you to make sure you’re breathing more deeply and fully. If so, try something like “I am relaxed” or “I can do this.” Focus on breathing in. Breathing out will happen naturally.

Learning to exhale

It’s important to give yourself at least as much time to exhale as you do to inhale. So take a long, deep breath, and then let it all out, allowing your exhale to linger. Blowing out of your mouth may make it easier for you to release more air and extend your exhale. Doing this helps you relax, and it may keep you from hyperventilating or breathing in a panicked state. If it helps you, count with each inhale and exhale, or have your support person do the counting for you — whatever helps you relax.

Counted breathing

As you breathe in, count slowly to three or four, and as you exhale, count to the same number again. If it helps you, try counting backwards in countdown fashion while you exhale. Counted breathing helps you focus and can encourage you to take long, slow breaths. 

Paced breathing (slow and paced)

Pacing your breathing can help you focus and relax through contractions. You can try slow-paced and patterned-paced breathing.

  • Slow-paced breathing should start and end with a deep, cleansing breath (as described above). The breathing should be slow, easy and rhythmic, and you should concentrate on breathing from your abdomen. You should breathe in and out half as many times as you normally would. If you need to focus your attention, try using counting rhythms, repetitive words or phrases, imagery, massage…whatever works.
  • Patterned-paced breathing involves rhythmic breathing that is quick — about twice as fast as you would normally breathe. Try a pattern of breathing, such as three inhales in quick succession followed by one quick exhale, then repeat. This breathing should originate more from your chest than your abdomen. You may also want to vary the pattern. Consider starting with five inhales/one exhale, and then do four inhales/one exhale, followed by three/one and so on, and when you get to one inhale/one exhale, start counting back up again until you get to five/one. If it helps, come up with your own patterns, and use imagery or other attention focusing tricks as needed. This type of breathing may help you get through the stronger, longer contractions, taking your attention from what your body is doing and focusing on relaxing and breathing.

The most important thing about breathing exercises is to find the best way for you to relax and reduce your stress. Practicing may feel strange, but it could be very valuable to you when you are in labor. It’s one of the best ways to help you through unmedicated, natural childbirth.

Visualization

Visualization is a technique women use to help them manage labor and delivery. Many childbirth educators teach visualization as a way to help women relax and to reduce fear and pain during labor. Your mind is a very powerful tool, and using it to your advantage during labor will help you get the most out of your experience. Using visualization techniques can reduce fear and release tension, which can promote relaxation and, in turn, reduce pain.

You can use visualization techniques like meditation or visualizing a peaceful location that makes you feel calm and relaxed. Or you might want to try visualizing the process of labor and what is happening to your body to help bring your baby into the world.

Visualizing the stages of labor can empower you and make you feel like an active participant in the childbirth experience – the labor isn’t just happening to you, you’re helping it along, taking positive steps to bring your baby into the world. You may want to imagine your cervix softening and opening, your body changing to guide your baby and your baby descending into the birth canal and eventually coming out to meet you. Imagining the birth process can be even more effective if you use a relaxation script that is read by your support person or played on an audio device.

Specific visualization related to the birth process isn’t likely to come easy during labor, so practicing in advance is very important. If you haven’t had much time to practice, or you aren’t entirely comfortable with that type of visualization, you may find that simply visualizing a peaceful scene or a comforting image from your own life will be helpful. Couple breathing techniques with the mental imagery to help you stay focused.

Practicing meditation or centering and using guided imagery can be very helpful for some women as well. The key to visualization is to make the technique your own. Do what works for you, and don’t worry about what others have done or think you should do.

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