Good breathing -the key to a snore-free pregnancy, comfortable birth and optimal oxygenation for mother and baby.
by Tess Graham
It’s common for mothers-to-be to seek out the best nutritional, exercise and birth preparation advice. However, one of the best things a woman can do to increase her chances of a healthy pregnancy is often overlooked. And that is to breathe well, to optimally oxygenate herself and her baby.
Unfortunately the majority of women, pregnant or not, do not breathe optimally. One indicator is snoring. Snoring used to be a “male thing”, but these days more and more women are snoring, and more and more pregnant women are doing so. About one in four women report frequent snoring during pregnancy. For a small number of these women, snoring may be a symptom of obstructive sleep apnoea, a serious condition where sleep is disrupted many times a night through stoppages in breathing.
This is not good news. If you are snoring, you are not breathing well, and the mother’s breathing during pregnancy can affect not only her own health but also that of her baby.
Research indicates that heavy snoring or sleep apnoea in pregnancy may be associated with high blood pressure, pre-eclampsia, low birth weight babies, and low Apgar scores. (Pre-eclampsia is a serious pregnancy-related condition that includes elevated blood pressure. The Apgar score is used to assess a baby’s health immediately after birth.) Snoring can be related to weight gain – which is part of a normal pregnancy – but that does not make snoring normal.
Why do people snore?
We all know snoring as that irritating noise that disturbs the sleep of the bed partner, other hotel guests and airline passengers. Children can snore, slim people can snore; it is not the prerogative of the middle-aged and overweight.
The first thing you need to know is that snoring does not occur in people with a normal breathing pattern, regardless of their weight. People who snore and have sleep apnoea do not breathe correctly. No exceptions. Research shows they breathe a lot more air per minute than is normal, both when awake and asleep.
Snoring is high-volume, high-speed breathing
As one long-suffering bed partner described it: “When he breathes in, it’s like he is sucking the paint off the walls; when he breathes out, I have to hold on to the side of the bed so he doesn’t blow me out.” During the day the signs of faulty breathing are there as well, though more subtle: Inefficient breathing is happening in the form of upper-chest breathing; “over-breathing” is happening in the forms of sighing, yawning, mouth-breathing or breathing faster than normal.
When drawing in large amounts of air, the tissues lining your nose, sinuses, and throat can get dehydrated, swollen and congested, narrowing your air passages. During sleep, when your throat muscles are relaxed, high-volume breathing sets up turbulence and vibration, creating the snoring noise, and pulling the sides of your airway closer together, reducing airflow to your lungs.
People who breathe correctly – slowly, smoothly, softly – do not snore. Nor will they have a mouth so dry that they have to lever their tongue from the roof of their mouth with a spoon in the morning. Not a great way to start the day on top of waking so exhausted you feel like you haven’t slept at all.
Snoring is fundamentally a problem with the way you breathe
There is another aspect of the faulty breathing pattern of snorers, mouth-breathers, frequent sighers and fast and heavy breathers. The excessive amount of carbon dioxide they expel with their over-breathing may result in constriction of blood vessels around the body and throw blood chemistry out of balance. (No, “deep breathing” is not good for you and carbon dioxide is not a poisonous waste gas!) The combined effect of these physiological disturbances is hypoxia – reduced oxygen delivery and uptake to body cells and organs, including the brain, heart and uterus.
After a day of huffing and puffing through your mouth or a night of snoring, you may feel the effects of poorer oxygenation as lack of energy, difficulty in focusing or light-headedness. Go into labor, and over-breathe and you may experience slower and more painful labor. Poorly oxygenated muscles are tired, tense, painful muscles.
There is also an effect on the nervous and endocrine (hormonal) systems. Over-breathing revs you up, there’s an adrenaline surge, you are in “fight or flight” mode. Blood is diverted from the central organs of your torso (including your uterus) to your limbs, so you are primed to defend yourself or run; adrenaline blocks oxytocin – the hormone that causes the uterine contractions of labor and birth. This is fine if there is danger present – you would not want to give birth in front of a sabre-toothed tiger, so stalling labor for a while is a good reaction to have when in danger. However, not so, if you are in the hospital birthing suite.
On the other hand, calm, gentle, nose-breathing, as much as possible in stage one of labor will facilitate the body’s general relaxation response. The uterus remains well supplied with blood, oxygen and oxytocin, and can work just as nature intended -strongly, powerfully, not necessarily painfully.
It is ideal to sort out any faulty breathing habits before pregnancy so that optimal breathing is maintained through pregnancy and just naturally looks after itself during labor. A woman who understands breathing, who breathes well and trusts her body, will automatically adjust her breathing during labor and birth to exactly what is required at each stage. She will relax, let go, and allow her body to work as nature so well designed it to.
Fortunately you can change the way you breathe. You can replace poor breathing habits with correct and efficient breathing. It’s called breathing retraining and is taught by breathing educators.
What you can do yourself to improve your breathing
By being mindful to breathe through your nose during the day whenever it is comfortable to do so, or to breathe more gently through your mouth when you cannot, you will be breathing more efficiently and setting yourself up for more gentle breathing at night- and therefore less likelihood of snoring and better use of oxygen. Another advantage is that breathing slowly and gently is also calming and been shown to reduce heart rate and blood pressure.
You don’t need to stop exercising – you could simply walk or cycle at a slower pace, where you keep your breathing comfortable and in control, preferably through your nose.
Three top tips to improve breathing and reduce likelihood of snoring:
- Try sleeping on your side rather than your back and elevating your upper body slightly with extra pillows or a special wedge-shaped pillow.
- Avoid or reduce mouth-breathing in the daytime by being more aware to breathe through your nose whenever it’s comfortable.
- Avoid any activity that makes you breathe heavily, puffing and panting through your mouth. If you do have to mouth-breathe, do it gently.
A common comment several days after applying these suggestions is: “I had the best sleep in decades last night.”
BSc. Grad Dip Phty
Physiotherapist, breathing educator, researcher, speaker and published author. Tess has worked specifically with breathing for over 20 years. She is the author of Relief from Snoring and Sleep Apnoea: A step-by-step guide to restful sleep and better health through changing the way you breathe. www.BreatheAbility.com
Additional:Tess conducts the “Breathing for Birth and Beyond” workshops for midwives, physiotherapists, doulas and childbirth educators.
 If there is concern about snoring or apnoea, it is important the person checks with their doctor to determine whether further medical evaluation is necessary.