Your breath is your gearstick to labour. Practice driving with it during pregnancy.
Dr Shari Read

Healthy, unrestricted breath is three­‐dimensional. Pregnancy generally restricts only one of these dimensions. There are two remaining dimensions that can be used to access a full, satisfying inhalation.

Partners can watch to help keep the breath slow and rhythmic, making sure mum doesn’t hold her breath at any time. Her body and your baby are dependent on the oxygen from each and every breath.
Dr Shari Read
Many pregnant women notice, that once baby starts to take up more space, it gets harder to breathe or that breath feels more “shallow.” This is because the diaphragm muscle gets pushed up (as does everything else between the uterus and the top of the abdominal and thoracic cavities) by the expanding uterus as baby gets bigger. The thoracic cavity, which contains the lungs, requires empty space to be available so that the lungs can inflate to their full extent on an inhale, usually this empty space is created by the belly (the abdominal cavity) protruding (being pushed out of the way) as we breathe in. However, if the abdominal cavity is filled by a uterus containing a baby and a few litres of amniotic fluid, there is little possibility of the breath being forceful enough to push the full uterus out of the way enough for the lungs to expand fully. This means that there is limited space available and therefore, limited capacity for a deep inhale, leaving us ‘breathless’ during the latter part of pregnancy.

In order to be more comfortable, we need to adjust out breathing patterns to accommodate this change in circumstances. When a growing uterus, during pregnancy, pushes up onto the diaphragm muscle and breathing gets harder, often the body will find a way itself to compensate or breathe easier. So often, we may not even know that our body has found a different, easier way for us to breathe while pregnant. Chest and shoulder breathing are two common solutions our bodies come up with to breathe comfortably while pregnant. As you begin to become aware of your breath you might notice that, like most people, you breathe quite shallowly, drawing a breath high in the chest and perhaps raising shoulders with each inhalation. This type of shallow breathing, which exchanges around only 10% of the air in the lungs, leaves toxins trapped in the body and fails to re-­‐oxygenate the blood enough to meet the physical demands of the pregnant body (nevermind the labour process!). Further, shallow chest breathing leads to neck and shoulder tension and traps a lot of energy in your upper body which could otherwise be used more effectively if the energy was allowed to travel down to the abdomen and uterus where all the action is taking place (first growing a baby and then labour and birth)!

Feeling short of breath can be a very frightening experience. Feeling short of breath as labour begins can be terrifying. Feel short of breath and terrified as labour progresses can lead to:

  • increased levels of muscular tension;
  • increased use of oxygen by arms and legs, leaving the uterus (and baby)
  • increased blood pressure;
  • a labour that is painful and very slow to progress (as the production of
    labour hormones will be restricted by the stress hormones produced in
    response to fear) ;
  • the need for medical intervention to manage labour.
So how do we avoid all of this? Learning to breathe during pregnancy, in a way that adapts to the circumstances and allows you to get as full a breath as possible will help prevent this domino effect of fear from transpiring. However, if the movement of the diaphragm is restricted by the fullness of the uterus in the abdominal cavity, where do we find the space to breath deeply in?

Healthy, unrestricted breath is three-­‐dimensional. The pregnancy restricts only one of these dimensions. There are two remaining dimensions that can be used to access a full, satisfying inhalation.

Leslie Kaminoff (The Breathing Project, NYC) says, “Breath is shape change (in the cavities of the body). Shape change in the abdominal and thoracic cavities leads to shape change in the spine.” Therefore, the shape change created by pregnancy (by filling and expanding the abdominal cavity) must also lead to shape change of the spine. So, the space required for the breath during pregnancy is made available by the shape change of the spine, and the space needed for breath is then available in the remaining two dimensions, relatively speaking, given the vertical is restricted by the pregnancy (front to back: sternum rises; and side to side: shoulders & ribs expand to the side), but for a woman with habitual up-­‐down breath rather than 3D breath, these two dimensions weren’t available before pregnancy so without training in the use of the other two dimensions, the breath becomes very shallow and restricted. If a pregnant woman is taught to use all three dimensions she can avoid the shallowness of breath experienced by many in the later stages of pregnancy.

You can learn healthy breathing patterns for pregnancy in the
BirthSkills online birth preparation course.

Research shows that many women develop new habits of breathing during pregnancy, and even though these new habits have developed to suit a specific circumstance, we don’t always return to optimal breathing patterns for our non-­‐ pregnant body after the baby is born. Even though the pressure on the diaphragm is reduced, we don’t always return to a deeper pattern of breath without some conscious awareness of the processes taking place.

You can learn how to resume healthy breathing patterns after birth in the BirthSkills online postnatal support course: coming soon!