Nicola Harpin, Jess Ennis-Hill's yoga teacher, gives the lowdown on four different breathing techniques that can potentially help your birth
A 2017 study published in Journal of Integrative Medicine reported that deep breathing exercises can reduce a pregnant woman’s perception of labour pain, and may even shorten the duration of her labour.
Nicola Harpin, Jess Ennis-Hill’s pregnancy yoga teacher, has been teaching special breathing techniques to pregnant women and their partners for many years now and believes they are the key to a positive birthing experience, no matter what their type of delivery. Nicola used the techniques in her own labours, and has heard from hundreds of women about how the techniques helped them stay grounded, connected and centred during their labours.
When it comes to integrating them into your labour, she says: “The trick is to practice these techniques together in advance of your big day – not only so that you can pick and choose the exercises that feel right for you, but so your partner understands how they can best support you, too.”
Deep breathing exercises can reduce a pregnant woman’s perception of labour pain, and may even shorten the duration of her labour
“During labour, the birthing partner needs to observe the mum's breathing and movement patterns, select the most appropriate technique and guide her through it,” adds Nicola.
4 labour breathing exercises to try
The following breathing techniques are some of Nicola's favourites. Here's what you need to know to get started:
1. Ujjayi breathing
Also known as ‘victorious breath’, this yogic breathing technique has a tranquillising, relaxing effect on the body. Try it in the early stages of labour, when you’re trying to rest.
How to do it: Lie down or sit back-to-back with your birthing partner, and breathe through your nose. Next, imagine your breath is moving in and out of a small hole within the throat. As your breathing becomes slower and deeper, turn your focus onto your glottis – the swallowing mechanism within your throat – and gently contract it to allow the breath to take on a light snoring sound. Don’t force your breath, but stay relaxed.
How your partner can help: They can encourage you by doing it too!
2. Golden thread breathing
This technique helps you visualise your breath – diverting your attention away from your contractions.
How to do it: Breathe in through your nose and out through your mouth, lips slightly parted, keeping your face, jaw and mouth soft and relaxed. As you exhale, visualise releasing a golden thread from your lips and follow its journey until it disappears at the end of your exhale.
How your partner can help: They can remind you to keep your face relaxed, and to concentrate on that golden thread.
The trick is to practice these techniques together in advance of your big day – not only so that you can pick and choose the exercises that feel right for you, but so your partner understands how they can best support you, too
3. Balloon breathing
Here’s a deep breathing exercise to use during your later contractions. In this one, you visualise creating space within your womb and birth canal to help your little one pass through.
How to do it: Relax your face, breathe softly in through your nose and out through your mouth. On each exhale, imagine a balloon expanding in size. As your contractions increase in intensity, the expansion of the balloon may require a longer, stronger out-breath.
How your partner can help: They need to keep you focused on that balloon.
4. Counted breath practice
Counting helps divert attention away from the sensation of the contractions, while also relaxing your body. This is the breathing technique I chose to use during my two labours.
How to do it: Sit opposite your partner, so you have eye contact and breathe in through the nose and out through slightly parted lips. Your partner must count for the duration of each inhale – ‘1, 2, 3, 4’ and so on – and then each exhale.
How your partner can help: By not stopping! Counting out your breaths means you’re more likely to take long, slow, deep breaths through each contraction.
Follow Nicola’s trimester-specific pregnancy yoga in the Jennis Pregnancy programme