The Importance of Breath on the Journey to Motherhood

The Importance of Breath on the Journey to Motherhood

Most of the pregnant women who attend my Hypnobirthing classes and pregnancy retreats are aware that it will involve learning some kind of ‘special’ breathing. But how can learning new ways of breathing affect your birth experience?

When I mention the importance of the breath to a client, her first thoughts are often that it’s pretty hard to breathe in pregnancy with the diaphragm shifted upwards to accommodate her growing guest – one can feel out of breath even when speaking! Well, it’s safe to say that not only does she benefit, but so does her baby, the birth partner (in most cases the father) and I would even say that medical staff benefit from a calm mama too.

Many of us can recognise that blissed-out feeling after a yoga class. Our minds are still and thoughts are calmed. By focusing on the inhale and exhale, we’ve finally allowed ourselves to breathe fully and it feels good. We feel radiant and balanced.

For a woman in labour, she really has only one job and that is to become and remain calm. Easier said than done, you might think, but breathing rhythmically and deeply is key. In order to understand how remaining calm will affect our birth experience, let’s consider its opposite state – what happens to the body when we are stressed.

When we are anxious or fearful, our breathing naturally quickens and becomes shallow. We commonly recognise this state as ‘Fight or Flight’, but it’s proper name is the Sympathetic Nervous System. Our muscles are tense, we are awash with the stress hormones noradrenalin and cortisol which prepare us for battle or legging it! ‘Fight or Flight’ gets a bad rap in our society, but we are forever indebted to this ancient system which has kept us alive and allowed us to evolve into the brilliant birthing mammals that we are. Without the ability to react in a split second to a perceived threat, we would have been Sabre-toothed Tiger food a long time ago.

The problem that presents itself today is that we are in the Sympathetic Nervous System far too often, though present day perceived threat comes in the form of work; money and relationship worries; politics; unsafe neighbourhoods; the scaremongering media….it all adds up to a lingering feeling of anxiety. Rather sensibly, the body shuts down the reproductive system with feelings of stress and fear, whether it’s the sabre-toothed tiger (jolly useful) or a bright, unfamiliar labour ward (not so useful). It will divert its focus from the secondary systems (reproductive, digestive) to the primary organs, those fighting and fleeing essentials; arms, legs, brain, lungs and heart. For this reason, a spontaneous physiological birth will not happen in ‘Fight or Flight’ and so a birth that had been progressing well up to now, will slow or even halt if the woman becomes stressed.

Instead, birth happens in the opposite state, a place of calm and relaxation called the ‘Parasympathetic Nervous System’ where the hormones that start and maintain birth – oxytocin, prolactin, melatonin and beta endorphins (said to be 200x more powerful than morphine – are free to fire from the brain to receptors around the body which enable this miracle of life. Within the Parasympathetic state, energy (blood and oxygen) is equally distributed around all systems and crucially to your baby.

Depictions of difficult births in the media and a tendency for women to tell each other horror stories of ‘births gone bad’ have led to women having the idea of birth being a terrifying medical emergency rather than the normal physiological event that it is. Without tackling latent fears around birth or an understanding of the mechanics of the birthing body, childbirth is a terrifying prospect to a pregnant couple. It’s no wonder the majority of women go into birth worried and anxious.

How do you shift from a stressed mama to a calm and confident one?

There are many techniques taught in Hypnobirthing, the most well-known being tackling fear of birth, but the real magic tool at your disposal is your breath. Something as simple as breathing in through the nose for a count of four and out from the mouth for eight can switch you from a sympathetic to parasympathetic state. It also happens to add up to twelve, complete four or five sets of these and you’ve seen through the length of a surge (contraction). Yay!

A simple rhythmic breath which I call ‘Wave Breathing’ – an equal length inhale and exhale – can have a hypnotic effect, like a marathon runner focusing on the sound of their breath or footsteps for endurance.

I believe it is incredibly important that birth partners learn the breath work as well. These techniques are always a revelation for the birth partner who has often never experienced the buzz of full rhythmic breath and are left feeling high. Deep breathing will instil calm into a nervous birth partner, eliminating tension from the birth space and enable partners to think clearly. If Mum has a wobble during labour, mirroring her partner as they use a breathing technique will bring her back on track more than a verbal instruction ever could.

With her breath, she can find the rhythm of the birth, get behind it, become one with it.

A hypnotic rhythm will allow a woman to stay in a subconscious dream-like state where hormones of birth flow and she can tune into her mammalian, primal roots. The conscious mind (the critical logical, analytic) should be put aside during birth. Her birth partner can do the talking or texting while she goes ‘inside herself’, moving and perhaps even mooing to a complex choreography of hormones, baby and body.

A calm mother makes for a calm baby. With plenty of oxygen for energy and those happy parasympathetic hormones of bonding and security flowing freely, mum and baby work as a team until they eventually meet.

The breath work you learn in Hypnobirthing or pregnancy yoga is not just for birth. Whilst establishing breastfeeding, it’s key that you are feeling calm in order to release the required hormones oxytocin and prolactin. What better way to assist you than your tried and trusted breathing techniques?

In fact throughout all of the parenting milestones – teething babies, testing toddlers or turbulent teens – your deep, calming breath will always be there for you.  

Explore the full Yogamatters collection of Pranayama and Breathwork books here.

Clare Macdonald

Clare Macdonald is the founder of Born To Do It Hypnobirthing set up to offer honest, invaluable antenatal education to couples ahead of their big day. She is also one half of Mamaste Tribe holding nurturing and empowering Pregnancy Yoga and Hypnobirthing Retreats in Hertfordshire. As a Yoga Nidra teacher, she also offers Nidras for pregnancy and non pregnancy alike.