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You Learned to Breathe When You Were Born

by Cathy Daub CCE, CD (BWI)

Do you believe pregnant women need to be taught how to breathe when preparing for their labors?  Just as women are born with the knowledge about how to give birth, so they have also learned to breathe when they were born.  There are a number of concerns about trying to teach breathing techniques to birthing women.

The Primal Brain

The knowledge about how to give birth is in our primal brains.  That is the oldest part of the brain that is back near the cerebellum and brainstem.  Those are the most instinctive parts of our brain that regulate our primal needs such as the heartbeat, sleep, and breathing.  When a woman is in labor, she needs to be in her primal brain so the part of her that knows how to birth can do so without any disturbance from the neocortex or thinking brain that is the outer part of the brain.

Women who are in their primal brain will have the sensations of people and sounds being in the distance.  They will feel, as Michel Odent MD says, as if they are on another planet. They are neither here nor there.  This means they have surrendered to the process of birth and allowing their bodies to birth in an instinctive way.

There is a wonderful story called “The White Room” told to us by Bethany Hays, OB GYN who is on our BirthWorks Board of Advisors.  She was with a woman in birth who was having very strong contractions and had a petrified look on her face with wide panicky eyes.  Bethany walked over to her and simply asked “Where do you want to go?”  The woman just continued staring.  Bethany said, “Wherever that place is, go there now.”  And the woman left.  She was still there but her consciousness had gone elsewhere.  Bethany continued monitoring the heartbeat and all was fine.  Sometime later, the woman started becoming conscious again and was bearing down to birth her baby.

At a follow-up appointment, Bethany asked her, “So where did you go?”  The woman responded, “I went to the white room where my uncle who passed away three years ago, held my hand.”  This woman had an out-of-body experience that was out of space, out of time, but very much possible in the instinctive brain.

 Ways to Disturb the Primal Brain in Labor

Anytime a woman in labor needs to think about something, she is more present in her neocortex or thinking brain.  This is very important information for any doulas or childbirth educators, and any of the birth team. They need to think, “What might I say that will disturb her labor?”  Anytime they ask a question, they are disturbing her labor and her ability to move into her primal brain.  Imagine a doula asking her “Was that contraction stronger than the last one?”  “Would you like to change positions?” “Would you like a glass of water?”  “How are you feeling right now?”  These all have the potential of keeping her out of her instinctive, primal brain that already knows how to give birth.  More silence and working with energy are needed.

Avoiding Breathing Patterns

In BirthWorks, we do not teach breathing patterns for these reasons because a woman who has been taught different breathing patterns for different parts of labor, will be thinking, “Should I use this breathing pattern now, or that one?”  Not only does this disturb her instinctive brain, but it also keeps her from being in touch with her body that already knows how to give birth.  If she can have faith and trust in her body, she will be able to have it be her guide in labor.

For this reason we advocate breathing slowly and deeply throughout labor and not changing this for any specific part of labor.  Slow deep diaphragmatic breathing has so many benefits:

  • Slows down the heart rate and breathing,
  • Fills the lungs more completely with air increasing vital capacity,
  • Calms the mind, increases the secretion of oxytocin, the hormone of love which also stimulates uterine contractions helping labor to progress,
  • Increases confidence and decreases fear in labor.
  • Sends an important message to the body, keeping it more in balance and equilibrium.
  • Keeps her entire body relaxed.
  • Allows her to relax into each contraction so it becomes more effective in dilating her cervix
  • Helps a woman to have more energy for the work of labor.

Other ways to avoid stimulating the neocortex besides asking rational, thinking, logical questions, include keeping lights dim, having privacy which simply means not feeling observed, and not moving from one room to another.

But most importantly, childbirth preparation classes need to emphasize the idea of slow, deep breathing all the way through labor with all the benefits it offers.  Teaching breathing techniques is a way to disturb labor.  When slow, deep breathing is practiced in life, it is also easier to do when in labor.