An overlooked tool in pregnancy and birth? Breathwork
Let’s get back to the inhale, exhale, mama.
When you think about breathwork and birth, you probably think about the Lamaze technique. The quick inhale-exhale through the mouth while in labor has been highlighted for decades in TV and film, but there’s more to the breathing method than just a clichéd depiction of a woman about to give birth. It’s an evidence-based strategy that can be effectively used to manage contractions.
But as it turns out, breathwork may have benefits throughout pregnancy—not just in labor.
First introduced in 1951, the Lamaze Method’s use of breathwork was groundbreaking—and has since paved the way for more breathwork tools to take center stage in our collective dialogue.
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But breathing exercises are still an underutilized tool in general, says Davi Brown, head of education and community at Breathwrk, a breathwork-focused app, and certified breathwork instructor.
“During the birthing process, from conception to postpartum and beyond, many shifts are taking place in the body and mind that breathing exercises can support by lowering blood pressure and heart rate, improving mood and increasing feelings of bonding, reducing symptoms of pain, nausea and anxiety, and helping you to relax when you need it most,” Brown says.
It’s a powerful practice that’s always accessible, and can be safe and effective for pregnancy when used in the right way.
Benefits of breathwork
Even something as simple as consciously breathing through your nose instead of your mouth and slowing down your breathing rate can have big benefits.
“Breathing predominantly through your nose during waking and sleeping is one of the most scientifically supported breathing interventions and definitely the most widely taught by teachers,” Brown says. “By simply shifting to breathing through your nose throughout the day and night, you’ll be slowing down the breathing rate, modulating cognitive function, purifying the air and supporting proper airway structure.”
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Breathwork also can help alleviate some common pregnancy symptoms, like nausea and morning sickness. Just lengthening your exhale can activate the vagus nerve and engage your parasympathetic nervous system to help relax and calm the body and the digestive system.
It can also help relieve that shortness of breath you may get later in pregnancy. By the middle of the second trimester, as many as 76% of pregnant people experience shortness of breath, or dyspnea. “Intentional breathing at specific rates can help alleviate this,” Brown notes.
How to practice breathwork safely in pregnancy
The following are important factors to remember if you’re practicing breathwork while pregnant.
Focus on exercises that are designed for pregnancy. Working with a trained breathwork instructor or using a program that’s specifically designed for pregnant people will ensure you’re using techniques that are safe for you and your developing baby.
Don’t hold your breath for long periods. Holding in your breath for extended periods (more than 7 counts) is contraindicated in pregnancy for fears that it could slow oxygen delivery to the fetus. Talk to your doctor if you have concerns.
Avoid short, rapid inhalations. This type of breathwork, while helpful in other times, can trigger hyperventilation in pregnancy.
Don’t get too hot. Some types of breathwork may work to raise your body temperature, which is not advised during pregnancy.
Listen to your body. If you start to feel dizzy or lightheaded, stop practicing and return to a normal breathing rate.
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Breathwork for pregnancy and postpartum
Here are specific breathing exercises and breathwork techniques to use throughout pregnancy, birth and into the postpartum period.
The first three breathing techniques outlined below (Nausea, Sleep and Active) are all deemed safe for pregnancy.
For your safety, we recommend practicing breathwork while sitting or lying down. If you feel lightheaded, please stop immediately. Do not practice while driving or in water.
Suggested breath: Nausea
“Controlled breathing has been found to help significantly reduce symptoms of nausea, which can be useful during the first trimester when the likelihood for nausea is high,” Brown shares.
Suggested breath: Sleep
“It’s important to prioritize rest and relaxation throughout the process of growing another human inside of you,” says Brown. The Sleep breath can help you wind down from the day. Repeat for just four breaths.
Labor and birth
Suggested breath: Active
“The Active breath was developed in partnership with Loom, which provides online education for reproductive and sexual wellness, for when contractions are intense and 3 to 5 minutes apart,” Brown says.
Suggested breath: Uplift
“Rhythmic breathing can help your body and mind relax and can also increase feelings of bonding and love,” Brown notes. After birth, there are numerous physical, mental and emotional steps toward recovery and this breath is meant to support them all.
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Davi Brown is head of education and community at Breathwrk, a breathwork-focused app, and a certified breathwork instructor.