Breathing – It’s Not Just for Labor Anymore!

Lung

As a Childbirth Educator, I’m charged with teaching my students about ways they can successfully cope with contractions. This includes all sorts of techniques: position changes, medications, hydrotherapy and the original coping technique: breathing.

Breathing gets a bad rap, as far as I’m concerned. In movies and TV shows, Childbirth Preparation classes are a joke, and breathing is the punchline.

It’s no wonder my students are ready to laugh during this portion of the class. So, I acknowledge how ridiculous it is to “practice” breathing. After all, isn’t it something that we do all the time without thinking about it? Breath goes in and out without a lot of thought because it’s an essential function necessary to stay alive. So, why do we even need to teach laboring women (and more importantly, their partners) how to breathe?

Because at some point in the process of giving birth the intensity of the contractions is usually strong enough to take your breath away – at least momentarily.

When we stub our toe in the middle of the night, we don’t continue to breathe in a slow and controlled way. No, we usually jump onto the foot that’s not hurt, grab the toe that is, and hold our breath while letting a few choice four-letter words escape in between short gasps for air. This won’t make us feel any better, but it’s something that almost every person does unconsciously when we’re in pain.

Why does this matter when we’re in labor?

At the time we give birth, the largest muscle in the entire body will be the uterus. The uterus is made of smooth muscle tissue – the same type of tissue that lines other organs like the esophagus and stomach. These muscular organs are “pre-programmed” to do their jobs. These organs just do what they’re supposed to do.

If you’re following along, dear reader, than maybe you’ve already figured out that the uterus is also a “pre-programmed” muscular organ that knows what it’s supposed to do, too. But it needs two very important things in order to do it’s job well: blood flow and oxygen. Without these two essential items, the uterus will still attempt to do it’s job of thinning and opening the cervix and then later, pushing the baby down and through the birth canal – but it won’t be able to do it very well.

When we feel a contraction come on and the intensity is climbing, if we hold our breath (which is the typical and most natural response) not only are we starving the largest muscle in our body of the essential ingredients necessary to be successful in it’s job, but we also lessen the amount of oxygen that gets to our baby in utero. And, we do absolutely nothing to address the pain of our contractions – in fact, holding our breath during contractions is likely to increase the sensation of pain.

So holding our breath during labor is a lose-lose-lose situation.

When I’m teaching this topic to my students it’s super important that I have their full buy-in right from the start. If I don’t, then focused breathing won’t be something that they’ll use in labor. They won’t find it to be helpful at all in coping with their contractions. So how do I encourage buy-in?

I tell them a few true stories pulled from my own life that have absolutely nothing to do with labor to show them how breathing made the experience tolerable and increased my ability to cope. And I make sure to show how breathing can be used to help with challenging situations, be they physical or emotional.

Situation I: A is for Avocado, B is for Breathing and C is for Coping

I had an unfortunate incident with an avocado a couple of years back. When you’ve heard people say, “Never pit an avocado with a knife while holding it in your hand” – listen to them. It’s a very bad idea. And one that cost me six stitches in my middle finger. I ended up at the ER.  And after the initial lidocaine pinch, the nurse started to sew me up. But this was a pretty deep wound and I was still in quite a bit of pain. I asked her to please stop (or, I might have just yelled, “STOP!” at the top of my lungs – the details are unimportant), and then closed my eyes and started to breathe deeply. After my rhythm was established, maybe 4-5 breaths in, I told her she could continue, which she did. And while I was still able to feel some discomfort, I wouldn’t have described it as “pain.”

My nurse was impressed with my coping technique and asked me what I was doing. “Labor breathing,” I replied. “If it doesn’t work in situations like this, I have no business teaching it to my students. It’s a waste of my time and their money.”

Situation II: Houston, We Have a Problem!

Back in the day, I used to love it when there was turbulence during a flight. It was one of my favorite things in the world! I felt like I was on a roller coaster!

But then I had to make not one, but two emergency landings (flying through the Midwest on a Summer afternoon can result in this, I’ve found…) and the thrill was gone. Now, whenever I fly and we hit a patch of bumpy weather, I feel my blood pressure rise by at least twenty points and my heart feels as if it’s permanently lodged in my throat. I have to use deep, slow breathing to calm my brain so that my body receives the message: “Everything is going to be okay.”

It’s amazing to witness how much my brain controls my body! But even more amazing is how the simple act of focused breathing positively impacts that brain-body connection. When I breathe in this way, it’s almost as if I’m able to see my body move away from the stress response right back into the relaxation response. I am able to control, quite well, my “Fight or Flight” response – just by using my breath to my advantage.

On our most recent family vacation, our flight was delayed for 2 1/2 hours do to a big afternoon thunderstorm in Florida. When we finally got cleared to fly, I was already anxious because while the storm had moved off and we weren’t going to be flying directly into it, I knew we’d be hitting some pretty bad turbulence as we passed through the big, dark layer of clouds ahead of us.

When the captain came on to tell us it would be “a little bumpy” for the next 30 minutes or so, my anxiety started to climb and that old familiar feeling of “Fight or Flight” started to kick in.

Both sides of the family live 3,000+ miles away. We will always have to fly to visit our extended family. And I am unwilling to pass along the fear of flying to my children.

So when turbulence begins, for the sake of my children, I automatically close my eyes and try to appear as though I’m only resting. I breathe slowly and deeply, in and out through my nose, paying attention only to the rhythm of “In, 1-2-3-4 and Out, 1-2-3-4.” And on this last trip, this seemed to be working just fine.

Until the plane took a sudden lurch to one side, and my rhythm got interrupted. I could feel my blood pressure rise and my pulse quicken. So, then I tried a new angle – “What if I add a little mantra to the mix? Just to see if I can get the gremlins that are running around my head screaming, ‘This plane is going to fall out of the sky!’ to shut up?”

So, along with my deep, slow breathing I began to repeat over and over again one little word: calm. And with that, I felt everything that had gone up begin to come back down again.

My pulse slowed, my heart left my throat and returned to my chest, my blood pressure was no longer so strong that I could feel it pounding in my veins. And then, amazingly, despite another 25 minutes or so of pretty heavy bouncing around, I felt myself almost fall asleep! (I will never actually sleep on a plane. The other 250+ passengers on board don’t realize that it’s me staying awake that’s keeping the plane in the sky. Irrational, I know, but that’s what I believe.) The gremlins in my head were finally snoring softly and the bumps on the plane began to feel no more worrisome to me then bumps you would feel in a car on a long road trip.

While I doubt I will ever love turbulence again – that would be a pretty big stretch for me – I love being able to find real-life situations where I can see the tangible benefits of breathing and how it can help both my mind and body.

I encourage you to explore this idea on your own. The next time you’re feeling anxious, afraid, stressed – see if deep, slow, focused breathing can help you in the same way it does for me. If you’re able to see the day-to-day benefits of breathing in your everyday life, then “Breathing as Labor Coping Technique” starts to feel like something that might actually work during birth.

Besides, you’ll want to master this technique for parenting. Deep, slow breathing is a lifesaver for many new parents as they’re negotiating their “new normal.”

Breathing – it might not be just for labor anymore, but it’s still one of the best things you can count on for coping with emotional stress or physical pain.

Did you use breathing as a labor coping technique? Did it work for you? If it didn’t, would you say it was because the physical pain became too intense, or was it that emotionally you were no longer able to get the gremlins in your mind to shut up? If it did, do you share this technique with expectant parents? You should, it can make a difference!

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