Top Tips - The Science of Breathing and Relaxation in Birth
Slow and steady wins the race

The Science of Breathing and Relaxation in Birth


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Slow and steady wins the race

When a woman is relaxed and breathing deeply during labour the three uterine muscle layers work together like 'silk on silk' to help the labour progress. This is because a relaxed state promotes the release of high levels of oxytocin and endorphins. When these circulate freely around the body the uterus receives more blood and can therefore work more effectively and efficiently.

Conversely, when a woman breathes quickly through her mouth it creates adrenalin in her system which can make the body tense. This will often create more pain in her body, causing panic and leading her to feel out of control. Grantly Dick-Read called this the Fear-Tension-Pain Syndrome. Adrenalin and stress hormones divert blood away from the uterus, causing the inner circular muscle fibres to clamp shut. This causes tension within the uterine muscles which stimulates pain receptors that can slow down the labour or even halt it completely.

This is why we always recommend that women breathe in and out the nose as slowly as possible during labour. This supports the body to give birth and also helps the woman feel calm and in control. Deep nasal breathing accesses the parasympathetic nervous system which slows your heart rate, lowers blood pressure and provides you with a sense of calm.

Rhythmic breathing during labour has multiple benefits: it maximises the amount of oxygen available to you and your baby, gives you a focus to help you manage the contractions and helps relax and soften your body to conserve energy.  

We recommend a gentle breath in through the nose for up to 4 seconds, taking the breath down to your diaphragm and then gently releasing for up to 8 seconds. You will find as you get to later stages of pregnancy (around 35 weeks) that breathing can become a bit more difficult because your baby is pushing up into the lung area. However, by the time you go into labour, the baby will have dropped into the pelvis and you will have more lung capacity again.

Daily practice of breathing techniques will allow you to stay relaxed and calm during your pregnancy and when labour comes the body will recognise the breath as an anchor or trigger to the relaxation response.

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