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Power of the breath

Updated: Jul 15, 2020

How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life

The psycho-physiological changes in brain-body interaction observed in most of meditative and relaxing practices rely on voluntary slowing down of breath frequency.

Breathing is intimately linked with mental functions.

Voluntary slowing down of breath frequency has been observed in most meditative and relaxing practices. We will be looking at how the breath can affect labour to facilitate the necessary brain-body changes in birth. In western culture, breathing techniques were developed for therapeutic aims to distress and relax the body. Paced breathing has been associated with relaxation and well-being, while fast breathing has been often mutually linked to anxiety and stress.

It is important to listen to your body and use your birth partner for help. If you or your birth partner notice a quickening and shortening of the breath without contractions, it is important to correct this. Redirect yourself to normal, calm breathing. The same way you are breathing right now, reading this article. This is paced breathing. This breathing technique is designed to improve oxygenation and interfere with the transmission of pain signals from the uterus to the brain.

Breathing techniques are a conditioned response to labour contractions. If there is anxiety your body will react by quickening up the breath which can lead to hyperventilation and poor blood flow to the uterus. Focusing on breathing interrupts the transmission of pain signals to your brain by giving you something alternative to focus on. It can work by stimulating the release of endorphins which are natural pain-relieving hormones. The pain of labour can be intense, with body tension, anxiety and fear making it worse. It is unusual and unhelpful to be extremely fearful throughout labour, and prolonged high levels of adrenaline can reduce oxytocin release which needs to happen for contractions to work and placental blood flow.

Abdominal breathing

There has been a lot of research around the world that suggests the best technique to allow greater oxygenation of the body is abdominal breathing, or diaphragmatic breathing. With this method, as you inhale or breathe in, your abdomen goes out, and as you exhale, your abdomen goes back in, and this is a slow, controlled type of breathing. Abdominal breathing is used in relaxation practices such as yoga, tai chi, and meditation. Even musicians and freedivers incorporate this type of abdominal breathing into their daily lives to increase their lung capacity. It has been discovered through Electroencephalography (EEG) studies that even a few minutes of diaphragmatic breathing can alter your brainwaves in a positive way by increasing your relaxation response, decreasing your stress hormones, decreasing your blood pressure, and increases your oxygen levels. All these physiological responses can assist in the natural progression of labour.

Conscious breathing and relaxation, especially in combination with a wide variety of comfort strategies, can help women avoid unnecessary medical intervention and have a safe, healthy birth.

Breathing in Second Stage

The second stage of labour is the pushing stage of your labour. The pant‐blow abdominal breathing technique is usually applied in the 2nd stage of labour. This allows slow crowning of the head when it reaches the opening of the vagina. This has been associated with reduction in tears during the second stage and works best combined with warm compresses to allow the vaginal muscles to relax and stretch.

Breathing as Pain Relief

Many women would like to go through labour without using drugs, or invasive methods such as an epidural. Unfortunately, some birth environments can be so restrictive that breathing is the only comfort strategy (other than the epidural) available to women. We learned from theListening to Mothers IIsurvey (Declercq et al., 2006) that 49% of women used breathing techniques in labour; but rated breathing as least helpful out of all the pain relieving strategies. However, the strategies they rated most helpful including immersion in a tub, massage, birth ball, hypnosis, and shower, are those that are least available. Despite this, the surveys suggest that controlled breathing is most effective when used with other comfort strategies. We have three recent randomized, controlled trials where breathing was used as part of a more packaged deal. The woman were taught a variety of non-drug comfort measures to be used in combination with breathing techniques. All three of those studies found benefits from the combination of non-drug comfort measures that included breathing.


In conclusion, we have learnt from studies that looks at breathing techniques and can see that they facilitate Important physiological changes in the body to relax the cervix and oxygenate the uterus. However, comparing breathing Alone as pain relief, may not be effective and should be used in conjunction with other therapeutic methods. This suggests that non-drug pain relief approaches work best in combination. Just simply using breathing by itself is probably not going to be effective unless you combine it with other methods such as hypnosis, relaxation, guided imagery, continuous support, or a variety of other comfort measures. However, breathing effectively is not thought of as pain relief, it is more used to facilitate the necessary physiological changes in the body to birth your baby. You may not know it, but your body has automatic physiological reactions to birth. Allow changes in your body to happen by remaining calm, relaxed, and slowing down of the breath. Take each contraction as it comes, let your body take control and after each surge, voluntarily return to your relaxed body and breath.


Smith. C, Levette. K, Collins. C, Armour. M, Dahlen. H, Suganuma. M; Relaxation techniques for pain management in labour, Cochrane Database Syst Rev. 2018, doi: 10.1002/14651858.CD009514.pub2

Ahmadi. Z, Torkzahrani. S, Roosta. F, Shakeri. N, Mhmoodi, Z; Effect of Breathing Technique of Blowing on the Extent of Damage to the Perineum at the Moment of Delivery: A Randomized Clinical Trial, Iran J Nurs Midwifery Res. 2017, doi: 10.4103/1735-9066.202071

Zaccaro. A, Piarulli. A, Laurino. M; Garbella. E, Menicucci. D; Neri. B, Gemignani, A; How Breath-Control Can Change Your Life: A Systematic Review on Psycho-Physiological Correlates of Slow Breathing, Front Hum Neurosci. 2018; doi: 10.3389/fnhum.2018.00353

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