You’ve seen all the ridiculous movie scenes with a pregnant woman panting, then screaming, then panting some more while her bumbling husband tries to comfort her through labor. I saw them all, too - and I knew that there had to be better ways to breathe through labor contractions! Fortunately, there are - here are natural birth breathing techniques that actually work during labor and delivery!
The first breathing technique is deep breathing. Breath deeply and slowly in and out through your nose. The next technique helps slow down breathing when things are tense: breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, gradually slowing your breathing. Counting as you breathe out and breathing into tense parts of your body help when you’re in pain.
5 Natural Birth Breathing Techniques
Here’s a detailed how-to on each type of breathing:
Deep Breathing Technique:
This classic breathing technique is great to start in pregnancy and it fits well into any birth toolkit. It also works well with any faith-based traditions you want to use - if you’d like to pray or meditate as you breathe, for example, this breathing works well.
Use this type of breathing frequently throughout pregnancy to condition your body to it. It’s ideal between contractions:
This natural birth breathing technique is the go-to for tough contractions or to get your breathing under control after a really intense contraction. It’s quick, effective, and your birth partner can help you with it even if you feel shaken up. Athletic breathing is based on what athletes use when they need to keep their breath under control during intense performance.
Use this technique during contractions - if you feel out of control, look at your birth partner and copy his/her breathing. Practice this technique with your birth partner so you both have a feel for it:
This type of breathing is a quick way to get your breathing under control, or get back to deep breathing if you feel you lost control during an intense contraction. It works very well, but it works best when you’ve practiced it plenty during pregnancy. Try it out when you’re feeling stressed or winded so it becomes a habit to use it to calm yourself.
Counted Breathing Technique:
Counted breathing is a natural birth breathing technique variation on deep breathing (or you can use it with athletic breathing). Sometimes called the 4:4 or 4:7 technique, it’s very simple.
Experiment with what works for you - personally I hate the 4:7 wave; I feel like I’m suffocating! But some women really like it because gives you something to really focus on (counting as you breathe). It can be a good skill to transition from tension to relaxation, then drop into a normal breathing pattern.
Focused Breathing Technique:
Focused Breathing is a natural birth breathing technique that helps clear tension out of specific areas of your body. It’s deep breathing with an additional focus:
Use this is a full-body relaxation technique by starting at the top of your body and moving down:
- 1Top of your head
- 2Forehead and around your eyes
- 3Jaw and neck
- 5Arms and Hands
- 6Chest and Upper Back
- 8Lower Back
- 9Pelvis and Bum
The Cleansing Breath
The cleansing breath is not a stand-alone breathing technique. You usually use it once or twice then transition to deep or athletic breathing:
All Techniques - Keep Your Jaw Soft:
There’s weird connection in our bodies - if you soften your jaw, the muscles of your pelvis and your bum will soften, too.
Try it now: relax your jaw, and notice that your pelvis and bottom soften up.
This is why low, moaning sounds can help you through contractions - the low moans keep your mouth often and soft.
At the same time, high-pitched screams leave you clenching your jaw, which causes everything to tighten up. That’s not terrible but it can get you out of breath really quickly and it may cause things to move more slowly for you and your baby.
You can use any of the techniques where you breathe out from your mouth (athletic breathing, the cleansing breath, focused breathing) and combine with low moaning sounds to keep your jaw soft.
You don’t have to moan, but many mamas find it really helps them stay soft and it’s a way to channel some of the incredible energy running through your body during contractions!
Breathing for Each Stage of Labor
Now that you know some breathing techniques for a natural birth, let’s talk about when to use them.
Early in the first stage of labor
Labor is just getting started at this point and the best breathing to use is your normal style of breathing! This is often just relaxed breathing in through your nose and out through your nose.
You can use deep breathing during early contractions - it’s usually enough. This is a good time to test out that breathing and experiment with different positions that help and you may rely on as your baby’s birth gets closer.
The best thing to do at this point is to go about your day as you normally would - making sure you take time to rest. It’s a good time to pamper yourself. Breathe calmly, eat here and there as you feel like it, nap, walk, and feel the bubbly excitement that you’ll meet your baby soon!
Active Stage of Labor
At this point things are more intense - you know for certain you’re in labor, and you have to pause and work with your during a contraction. This is the time for athletic breathing during contractions. You’ll breathe through them effectively and feel more in control. Some mamas like the counted breathing technique even during this stage, especially if you’re doing any type of hypnobirthing [hyperlink here].
Between contractions use a cleansing breath to slow your breathing down, then switch to deep breathing or focused breathing to let go of tension and rest. This is also the right time to change positions, take a sip of water, or have a bite of food to keep up your energy.
The most intense part of labor is transition. Contractions often feel like they’re not stopping, so this is where you really need to use your natural birth techniques.
Athletic Breathing is going to continue to be the best technique, especially with a soft jaw - now is the time to moan through contractions. Keep your jaw soft, your mouth open, and moan low.
It can be loud - but keep the pitch low. This keeps your jaw soft and pelvis and bottom open. Your baby really working at this point, too, because he or she is preparing to come down through your pelvis and out to meet you. Keeping those muscles soft is helpful.
Use a cleansing breath (or 2 or 3) as soon as each contraction ends. Then go back to athletic breathing until you feel calm. You may stay in athletic breathing most of transition. Have someone give you regular sips of water, juice, or an electrolyte drink so your mouth stays moist.
Second stage while pushing
Pushing is also intense but typically there are longer breaks between the contractions. Additionally you may find that your breath catches at the height of pushing contractions - you may hold your breath involuntarily, especially as you start to bear down.
This is normal and just fine - just switch to athletic breathing once the pushing stops.
It’s best to avoid “coached pushing” where you’re coached to hold your breath for a long time as you bear down. It’s not the safest for baby (see this post for more information) and it can actually cause injuries to you!
Instead, hold your breath only when natural, and use athletic breathing before and after.
Use deep breathing and/or Focused breathing between pushing contractions. Hormonal flow is at its peak during this part of a natural birth, so you’ll probably find it easy to close your eyes and relax during the pushing stage.
Four types of breathing & your natural breathing rhythms
I first discovered the Four Types of Breathing in the Birthing Better course, and it changed the way I thought about natural birth breathing techniques because it’s based on how people naturally breathe.
That may sound logical, but it’s actually pretty revolutionary.
Start getting to know the four types of breathing in this way:
You’ll start to see that you breathe differently in different situations:
In through your nose, out through your mouth - this is the athletic breathing we covered above and it’s what you use when you’re trying to catch your breath after exertion. You’ll likely notice that you use this breathing after walking up stairs or hurrying to get to an appointment.
In through your mouth, out through your nose - this type of breathing isn’t very common… it’s usually only used when someone is screaming or tantruming and is trying to calm down and stop screaming. It’s a very ineffective way to breath!
Again, take time to notice your own breathing and when you naturally use these types of breathing. Then focus on your breathing when you notice you’re breathing in a way that’s not effective - the best way to change your breathing is to notice your breathing now, think about it, and start working to shift it to the way you want to breathe instead.
Understanding how you breathe in different situations helps you start to control your breathing - and to breathe consciously. Do this throughout your pregnancy, and natural birth breathing techniques will come much more easily during your birthing time.
Practice & Practice with Your Partner
A lot of people believe that natural birth breathing techniques don’t work.
It’s true that some older techniques (like extended panting and high-pitched sounds) don’t work very well. They’re more likely to make you hyperventilate than to help you out!
But the real reason many women aren’t helped by breathing techniques is because they use them once or twice in a birthing class and that’s it. They don’t practice!
That’s why I emphasize noticing the four types of breathing in your everyday life, and it’s why I suggest practicing these types of breathing throughout your day.
Notice that I recommended deep breathing and focused breathing for when you lie down for a nap, or when you lie down for bed at night.
If you get out breath going up stairs, chasing a toddler, or doing a prenatal exercise routine, use athletic breathing to calm your breathing down.
Figure out what works for you - do you need to breathe faster at first, then slow it down? Does a cleansing breath help you start to bring your breathing into focus?
Your Birth Partner Should Practice With You
You’re going to develop a lot of awareness of your breathing on your own, but labor can get intense. Sometimes you may have all the knowledge and practice, but you just can’t catch your breath and calm down!
This is where your partner shines. If your birth coach has practiced breathing with you, he or she can model the right kind of breathing for you and you just copy that. It’s not a big deal early in labor, but during transition and the pushing stage, it can help you stay in control and give you focus during the intensity of contractions.
Use ice to help practice
A good way for you to practice this is an exercise from Birthing From Within. Hold an ice cube in your hand and practice your deep breathing or athletic breathing. It’s not a contraction, but it’s definitely intense in its own way!
A variation is to have your birth partner hold the ice cube behind your ear.
You can swap and have your birthing partner experience this, too.
Practice breathing together while you hold and ice cube between your hands - and have towels under you 😉
Breathing is a key when you “lose it”
One of the biggest fears women have is “losing it” or losing control during labor.
That’s a totally normal fear - and sometimes, it happens!
But it’s not the end - it’s not like one huge contraction is going to overwhelm you and then you’re going to be screaming for medications.
Breathing is actually the key to getting back in control, even if you lose it during the most intense part of a contraction. Let your birthing partner help you take a cleaning breath or two, then use athletic breathing to slow you breathing down until you’re in deep breathing mode. When the next contraction begins, you can switch back to athletic breathing up to the peak and back down. Feel free to moan as you breathe out while it’s most intense - it really can help you deal with the intense energy.
Sometimes getting your breathing calm again, then changing positions, can really help you handle the most intense portions of labor. Also check to see if you need to pee (pressure from your bladder can cause pain), and take a sip of water. If you feel like you’re lacking in energy, have a bite of food or a sip of juice to bring back some strength (something with quick-acting sugar is best at this stage).
Natural birth breathing techniques are quick and easy to learn, simple to practice daily, and they really do help while you’re giving birth!
How do you breathe while pushing? You should use athletic breathing when you push, but you may notice your breath naturally “catches” and you hold it during the most intense part of the push. This is normal and helpful - take a few cleansing breaths after the pushing contraction ends.
What is Labor breathing? Labor breathing is deep, normal breathing that helps you focus and stay in control during contractions. In through your nose, out through your mouth athletic breathing is the best breathing for active labor.
Get more information on breathing techniques, positions for labor, what (and when) to eat and drink during labor, how to manage contractions, and how to have a safe birth in my online, self-paced birthing classes: Click here for more information on MamaBaby Birthing classes!