Labor & Lamaze Breathing

Breathing is an unconscious activity that can be deepened and controlled through concentration. Our respiration patterns give us insight into how we are feeling. Notice how your breathing changes when you are tense versus when you are relaxed. Slow, deep breathing produces the best results. You can also benefit from labor breathing, which:

  • Provides something to focus on
  • Decreases awareness of pain
  • Offers some control in the labor process
  • Ensures your baby gets enough oxygen

The benefits of labor breathing include:

  • Teaches conscious controlled breathing during a contraction
  • Conserves energy
  • Focuses your attention away from the contraction
  • Encourages you to work with the contractions
  • Helps bring oxygen to the working muscles

Your labor breathing should make you feel comfortable, safe and relaxed. Several levels of breathing awareness can be used during labor. Choose the level of breathing that gives you the most comfort with the least amount of effort. There is no particular level for each phase of labor. Experiment and practice to discover what works best for you. Begin labor breathing with early contractions.

Breathing should be started in labor when you:

  • Are no longer comfortable breathing normally during a contraction
  • Are aware of increased tension
  • Can no longer talk during a contraction

Combine breathing with relaxation. Determining a focal point will help you concentrate better. Choose a person or an object in the room as your focal point.

Between contractions:

  • Breathe normally
  • Change positions
  • Use comfort measures
  • Have your coach check for tension
  • Relax

Sample Labor Breathing Technique

There are several breathing techniques. This is an example of one technique. Others may be discussed at childbirth classes.

Level I Breathing

Level I breathing is slow, relaxed breathing, about half the breaths normally taken. Lie on your side or recline in a lounge chair. The coach should place hands on your back, 3 inches below the waist. If no coach, you should place your hands below your abdomen. Take a deep, comfortable breath as each contraction begins. Then breathe in slowly and deeply to the level of the hands. The chest and abdomen will move in and out in a relaxed pattern. You may listen to your breath as you inhale and exhale or repeat phrases such as “I can do this” or “energy in, pain out.” Another approach is counting “in, 2, 3, 4, out, 2, 3, 4” as you breathe, or rock in rhythm to your breathing.

Level II Breathing

Level II breathing continues at a slower rate. Coach’s hands are now placed on your waist. If no coach, you should place your hands at your navel. Begin each contraction with a deep, comfortable breath. Then breathe to the level of your hands. Continue your counting “in, 2, 3, out, 2, 3,” or move for comfort with your breathing.

Level III Breathing

Level III breathing is at a slightly faster rate than normal. It should not exceed twice the breaths normally taken. Coach’s hands are placed below your shoulder blades at bra height. If no coach, you should place your hands on your breasts. Begin each contraction with a comfortable breath. Then breathe in comfortably and quietly to the level of the hands. Recite words in rhythm like “health-y ba-by” or count “in 2, out 2.” This type of breathing is tiring when done for a long time. Go back to Level I or Level II when possible.


Many women have an early urge to push during labor. It is important not to push until the nurse or doctor directs you to. Using proper breathing techniques will help give you control.

When your cervix is completely dilated, you can begin pushing or bearing down during each contraction. Your position should be comfortable during pushing. Select from semi-reclining, sitting up, side-lying or squatting position. Keep your mouth open slightly, relax your legs and pelvic floor muscles, and look toward your body.

It may help to think of pushing as if you are trying to empty your bladder forcefully or pushing your Kegel muscle out. Because pushing takes so much work, begin pushing only when your body tells you to push. Build the push smoothly with your contraction, pushing the hardest at the peak of the contraction. You may feel like you need to have a bowel movement. This is a normal sensation as your baby’s head presses against your bottom.

As your baby moves down, you may experience a large pressure or burning sensation. Most women feel a strong desire to push. Do not push during practice. To assist in pushing, there are two methods of breathing.

Exhale Breathing

Begin each contraction with two deep breaths. Inhale deeply and exhale slowly through pursed lips. Relax your bottom and push down. Keep your abdominal muscles tight around your baby as you take another breath. You may find yourself making throaty sounds. Repeat these steps as long as the contraction lasts.

Holding Your Breath

Begin each contraction with two deep breaths. Inhale deeply and hold your breath in the back of your throat (not your cheeks) for more than 6 to 10 seconds. It may be helpful for your coach to time this for you. Push while holding your breath. Keep your abdominal muscles tight around your baby as you take another breath. Repeat these steps as long as the contraction lasts.

For more information on labor breathing and childbirth education classes offered at Saint Francis, click here.