Hollywood’s portrayal of childbirth almost always includes some version of a laboring woman being encouraged to breathe, whether that is the clichéd “hee hee hee hooo” breathing pattern or something else. But although it might seem silly, there is actually something to focusing on the breath that may help you during the labor and birth of your baby. Read on for some ideas about why breathing might help you during labor and techniques that you can try both before and during your baby’s birth.
Why focused breathing helps during pregnancy and labor
Scientists know from studying high-level athletes that focusing on the breath, particularly deep, leisurely breaths, increases your awareness of your body, relaxation, and the amount of oxygen that gets into your blood, which can help you as well as helping your baby. Awareness of your body is usually helpful during labor, as focusing on the physical sensations of breathing and feeling can help minimize distractions that might cause you to worry or counteract normal labor occurrences that are not necessarily helpful. For instance, during times of worry or pain, people often speed up their breathing and make it shallower, which can increase anxiety and decrease blood oxygenation. Focusing on making the breath slow and even can offset the detrimental effects of this natural occurrence. Plus, since everyone breathes and can consciously control their breath, this mode of relaxation is available to anyone. 
Pregnancy, labor, and birthing can be times of great anxiety for many people, but breathing can be a good point on which to focus because it is continuously happening in the background of your life. In her book Mindful Birthing, midwife Nancy Bardacke writes that focusing on the breath is convenient during pregnancy and birth because it is portable and always with you. There is no way you can forget to pack your breath in your hospital bag. She also explains that a focus on the breath can shift the focus away from other, less helpful things our brain might be doing, such as analyzing the situation or trying to plan or control outcomes. Additionally, Bardacke emphasizes how your breath can help you be present in labor because there is nothing to do but focus on each inhale and exhale as they happen. 
Breathing techniques for pregnancy, labor, and birth
Some of these breathing techniques might work for you, but some might not. Try them out, and see which suits you best. Once you have found a breathing technique you love, practice it as often as you like. The more you have practiced, the easier it will be to call on the technique when you need it during your labor and baby’s birth.
- Exhale-focused breath: Dallas psychologist Ann Dunnewold encourages clients and meditation students to begin by emptying their lungs completely with a big exhale. She explains that the inhale can activate the flight/fight/freeze response from your sympathetic nervous system, and might make you more anxious or reactive. In contrast, the exhale activates the parasympathetic nervous system, accompanied by the need for rest and calm. After this initial exhale, allow your body to inhale on its own, and then exhale fully, making the exhale longer than the inhale. You can count inside your head as you breathe. You might inhale to the count of 3 or 4 and exhale to the count of 5 or 6. As you continue this practice, you might gradually deepen your inhales and lengthen your exhales. If it helps, you can open your mouth and exhale with a long sigh.
- Horse-lips breath: if you feel yourself clenching your jaw as you breath, this technique is a good one to get your mouth and face to relax. Start by opening your mouth, so that your upper and lower jaw separate, and then close your lips, without closing your jaw. Inhale through your nose and exhale forcefully through your mouth with loosened lips, so that your lips vibrate together, creating a noise like a horse. Repeat as many times as you need to.
- Targeting discomfort with your breath: it is not uncommon during pregnancy and birth to be uncomfortable. Maybe your back or legs have been aching your whole pregnancy or perhaps during labor, you experience painful contractions. By practicing this breathing technique, it is possible you will find some relief. Begin by drawing your attention to whatever spot in your body is most uncomfortable. Next time you inhale, imagine your breath going to that spot. It might help to picture your breath as golden light. As you exhale, imagine the breath is carrying the discomfort or pain out of your body or that the discomfort is being escorted away with the golden light of your breath. Repeat as needed.
- Vocal toning or sounding: as labor and birth becomes more intense, many people feel the need to vocalize. You might want to scream in agony, but doing a bit of conscious vocalizing coordinated with your breath could be more beneficial. Begin by drawing your attention to your breath. Notice what it feels like as you exhale and inhale. Then inhale to prepare and on your exhale, open your mouth, relax your jaw, and say “ohhhhh” with a low voice. You can inhale and vocalize again on your next exhale or take a few normal breaths in between vocalizations. You might stick with “oh” or you can use another sound that works for you, such as “ah,” “oo,” or “om.”
- J.A. Lothian, “Lamaze Breathing: What Every Pregnant Woman Needs to Know,” J Perinat Educ, doi:10.1891/1058-1243.20.2.118, 2011.
- N. Bardacke, Mindful Birthing, 2012.