Most people do not consider their breathing to be a source of tension in their lives. And yet, there are very few things that have as much effect on your ability to relax as your breathing.
Shallow chest breathing, the breathing style you probably use every day, uses the muscles of the chest and the ribcage to expand and shrink the lung cavity. The change in size changes the air pressure and either forces air in or out of your lungs. But chest breathing uses a lot of muscles to perform this task, wasting energy and keeping your chest in an almost constant state of tension.
Abdominal breathing uses the diaphragm muscle to change the size of the lung cavity. This provides you with more “air” because the diaphragm is able to enlarge the lung cavity more than the chest muscles. You get more oxygen with less work. Abdominal breathing is deeper, which means it is performed slower than chest breathing. This slowness serves to encourage you to relax your mind and body. Fast breathing, on the other hand, can make you feel tense and rushed.
Begin this exercise by sitting in a semi-upright position with your arms and legs propped up with pillows. You may look as if you are sitting in a recliner chair, and if you have one you can use it in place of the pillows.
In this fully relaxed position you should be able to let your head drop so you can see your protruding stomach. Relax your abdominal muscles and your back muscles and begin to breathe slowly and deliberately using the diaphragm rather than the chest muscles. You should see your abdomen rise as you inhale and sink as you exhale. You can place your hands on your stomach and feel the abdomen rise and sink as you breathe.
Once you feel comfortable with the breathing, begin to relax your body using the progressive relaxation. Periodically come back to your breathing to ensure that you are still using the diaphragm and not the chest muscles. Do not be surprised if this exercise makes you sleepy!
You should find in a few practice sessions you are able to breathe abdominally throughout the day, not just when you practice your relaxation. That is good because you want to breathe abdominally throughout labor. It allows you to relax more deeply if you don’t have to keep checking to be sure you are breathing correctly.
Review Your Work
- What about this exercise felt strange or uncomfortable to you?
- What about this exercise felt comfortable and relaxing to you?
- How does this exercise change each time you perform it?
Have your labor support try this exercise. How comfortable is your labor support with abdominal breathing?
Build a Touch Cue
A touch cue is a tool you can use to remind you to breathe abdominally.
- Choose a space on your body for your touch cue, for example your forearm or shoulder.
- Before you begin your abdominal breathing, either you or your labor partner should touch your designated cue location.
- Continue to contact the touch cue location as you abdominally breathe for about one minute, remove your hand from the touch cue location and end your abdominal breathing.
- Take a two to three-minute break and repeat.
Experiment with different body locations for your touch cue. Think about what parts of your body may have easy access during labor, such as a foot or ankle, the back of your shoulder, or your wrist.
Experiment with different types of touch for your touch cue. You may prefer a focused touch with only a thumb or two fingers, or you may prefer a larger touch such as the palm of your hand.