As someone who works with a lot of pregnant women, birth is something I get to talk about quite a bit! Someone recently asked me whether it was really possible to breathe your baby out having heard it mentioned in a conversation. The short answer is, yes with the right breathing it is possible and it does happen. Let me explain how that can work.
First of all though, I would like to remove any concept of judgement around birth, and what is a ‘good’ or ‘bad’ way to birth. Some things are beyond our control and with the best intentions and efforts, births may not go the way we dreamed - this should never be seen as a failing on the mother’s part. However your baby makes its way into the world, you will have given birth to a tiny human that you grew inside your own body and that makes you a glorious goddess - a giver of life!!
Having said that, mothers themselves have told me stories about birth experiences that they found difficult, frightening or traumatic so there are certainly things we can do to try and make it a better experience for mothers. A big part of this is empowering women through their breath.
In pregnancy yoga we focus a lot on breathing. Sometimes this might feel a little slow and repetitive, since as a society we are encouraged to be outwardly doing as much as possible; but this sitting around breathing lark is actually doing a lot inside our bodies!
What I found fascinating when I was training was discovering that the breath is the gateway to our unconscious body. It is the only function of the body that is both part of the Autonomic Nervous System, responsible for unconscious body functions (such as digestion, elimination, heart rate, breathing rate and sexual function); and the Voluntary Nervous System, responsible for our senses and conscious movement.
That is, if we don’t think about our breathing our body will do it for us, but we can also consciously control our breathing muscles if we choose. Most importantly, when we control our breath we can consciously put our bodies in either the sympathetic (fight, flight or freeze) state, or the parasympathetic (feed and breed/ rest and digest) state.
We can use the breath to access the unconscious functions of the body, including childbirth.
The breathing techniques we use in yoga (and are commonly used in hypnobirthing too) tend to focus on extending the exhale. This taps into the parasympathetic nervous system which will promote the release of oxytocin, known as the love hormone. Oxytocin is the key hormone in labour that regulates uterine contractions and cervical dilation. It also has an important function in reducing sensitivity to pain.
So good levels of oxytocin will help labour to progress well and make the experience more manageable for the mother. Important to bear in mind too is the fact that labours which progress well are much less likely to result in medical interventions.
On the flip side – anxiety, fear and panicky breathing will not only increase sensitivity to pain but also put the body into a sympathetic nervous state. This will trigger the release of adrenaline, the stress hormone. Adrenaline has the exact opposite effect you want for labour by slowing down or stopping contractions and dilation.
Having breathing techniques for labour and birth empowers the mother to promote her own labour and manage her pain.
The other key thing we focus on in breathing techniques is releasing the jaw, neck and throat. The exact mechanism is not clear to me but it is known that there is a connection between the cervix and the jaw/throat. So when we relax our jaw and throat, it also allows the cervix and birth canal to relax and open.
We have a natural tendency to grit our teeth against pain or strenuous effort, however this is counterproductive for birth as it will tighten the body. Instead, by using breathing techniques, the mother can keep the body soft and open and simply allow the baby to be born.
There is a growing understanding that in the majority of cases it is not really necessary or helpful to push the baby out. Pushing can cause vaginal and labial tearing as well as damage to the pelvic floor, whereas focusing on the breath and relaxation allows the body to birth the baby when it is ready.
There are plenty of stories of women who have birthed without pushing, I have met several myself! And if you are feeling doubtful, it is worth considering the cases of women giving birth vaginally while in a coma, and women with spinal cord injuries delivering vaginally – in both situations there is no conscious pushing. Women’s bodies have the power and intelligence to birth without pushing.
Breathing techniques for birth can reduce the likelihood or severity of tearing and pelvic injury.
Finally it is worth noting that whatever birth you have, breathing techniques will be useful to help you feel centred and calm when situations change or are challenging. One client of mine had an emergency caesarean birth and described beautifully how she used the breathing techniques to stay calm and centred while being transferred to theatre and how they gave her a sense of having some control of her wellbeing in what could have been a distressing situation.
For her it was still a wonderful birth. And isn’t that what we’d all like to experience, in whatever form it takes?