The #1, very simple thing you can do to help your postpartum body
Do you think about breathing? Most of us don’t, most of the time anyway. And while it’s great that we don’t have to think about it to stay alive, when we are intentional with how we breathe, there are dramatic impacts. Especially for pregnant and postpartum mamas (even if postpartum = YEARS after baby).
My biggest piece of advice: If you do nothing else after having a baby, learn how to breathe properly.
That sounds so simple or too good to be true, doesn’t it? But you’d be surprised how much of a difference it can make, physically and emotionally. And what even goes into proper breathing technique? Often we hear about belly breathing or breathing deeply, which is a start, BUT what we don’t talk about is where else we want to feel our breath and why that is (sometimes the mental focus on why helps keep breathing top of mind).
After having a baby, you might feel a lot of things like weaker core muscles, difficulty returning to exercise, challenges in holding your baby in certain positions, neck and back pain and tightness, or leaking due to imbalance in your pelvic floor – all very normal and common! What we don’t often connect is how your breath impacts and helps ALL of these issues. It may not be the only or full solution, but it is my biggest piece of advice for a reason…it helps so dramatically. So let’s talk about how you breathe and how that impacts you emotionally and physically, especially during such a sweet, yet challenging, time as postpartum.
How does breathing help you emotionally?
When we breathe (especially louder/audible exhales), we stimulate the vagus nerve, which helps with your stress response by tapping into your parasympathetic nervous system. It gets you out of “fight or flight” mode and into a place that is more calm and focused. So when we get a rise in strong emotions, we can better manage our way through them. Getting to the calm, focused place lets us temporarily step (emotionally) out of the situation to observe through a third-party lens. Through that lens, we can start to question why we are feeling how we feel, better understand that feelings can be fleeting and that we can feel them without having them drive our behaviors, and make intentional (vs. reactive) choices about how we want to behave.
This is a big deal during postpartum when emotions can run high for VERY understandable reasons, ranging from crying babies to hormonal changes to lack of sleep (and more). Tapping into your breath can give you a practical tool to use during a stressful time. And when we practice taking a break to breathe as parents, we can be better set up to teach this skill to our babies as they grow and experience big emotions as kids. (Just so you know, I also teach Kids Yoga). Meditation and yoga are among many great examples of practices that regularly involve breath work, as they aim to connect your mind, feelings, and body by using your breath.
How does breathing help you physically?
Let’s dig deeper here because this is where there is real impact for postpartum moms.
Resolving issues we experience in pregnancy and postpartum is all about managing the pressure inside your system, and breathing plays a big role in pressure management. Breathing doesn’t just enable oxygen to flow through your blood, but also the physical act of breathing moves muscles and changes pressure inside your abdominal canister.
Why does this matter? When muscles are out of balance in your abdomen (this involves more than your abs; it’s also your back, ribs, pelvic floor, the whole system!), pressure will follow the path of least resistance. So if you have weakness in your front side or tightness in your back side (as is common in pregnancy and postpartum), you can make diastasis recti, pelvic floor issues (like leaking), and back pain worse (or difficult to heal) by continuing to breathe improperly. The breath will push out at the area of weakness, making it hard to make progress to heal and strengthen your body.
For example, if you have weaker abs (or even diastasis too), your back muscles will likely be tight as they try to compensate and support your body. So when you breathe, your belly will expand more easily and your back side will be more resistant. At best, you perpetuate the problem as it is and at worst you make it worse if you take on exercise without loading and breathing properly.
How do you breathe properly?
Most of the time when people breathe, they breathe shallowly. When pregnant women breathe, sometimes we are almost forced (by the baby taking up space) to breathe shallowly or by lifting the front side of your ribcage to pull air in. Try as you might, there is only so much room to breathe deeply when there’s a baby inside. After your baby arrives, you may need to re-train your muscles on how to breathe.
To breathe properly and let your breath help manage pressure, you want to breathe all the way around your ribcage and all the way down to your pelvic floor. So you’ve heard of belly breathing, I’m guessing. We want more than just your belly to expand. We want your back, your sides, your chest, your abs, and your pelvic floor to expand as you breathe in, and then all of it to evenly contract when you breathe out.
My teacher, Sarah Duvall, calls this 360 Breathing, and I like to think of it as breathing up, down, and around. It can take some practice to become mentally aware of how breathing can expand your pelvic floor; sometimes it can feel disconnected. It can also be difficult to expand your back after having a baby (and especially while you’re still carrying that baby or toddler around on your front side) because those muscles are probably still pretty tight. Luckily, there are exercises to practice and help you with this.
What exercises can you do to train yourself to breathe properly?
There are lots of exercises you can do to train and restore your muscles so that you can breathe properly. Plus, there are ways to advance these exercises when you’ve made enough progress that it makes sense to take it up a level. I’ve listed a couple below. Follow me on Instagram and Facebook for some videos on these!
Child’s pose - If you’re familiar with yoga, you’ll recognize this pose. For the purposes of expanding your breathing abilities, try this pose a little differently than you might have before. Start on hands and knees with knees and ankles together. Sink your hips back toward your heels. Reach your arms forward and rest your chest and belly on your thighs and head on the floor. Breathe slowly and deeply in this position, and as you inhale and exhale, feel the back and sides of your ribs expanding and releasing. Try this for a few breaths at a time, and then take a break. With your belly and chest on your thighs, you are helping to contain the pressure and asking the breath to help release your upper back and ribcage in other places.
Ball rolling - Grab a tennis ball (or similar) and find a wall or a spot on the floor. Place the ball on your upper back and roll it slightly away from the spine (never roll on the spine!) until you find the bigger muscle that runs up and down your back. This is your paraspinal muscles (one on each side of the spine). Gentle roll the ball along this muscle. You can roll side to side or up and down; just experiment gently with this form of self-massage and fascia release. When you work to release tight muscles, you can train them (over time) to stay more relaxed, which changes where your breath goes as pressure changes inside your body.