Why parents need to breathe

How to do so and ease your life

Do you recognize the feeling of holding your breath when you need to do something exciting or precise? Maybe you don’t even realize you are holding your breath, but you notice just the deep sigh or gasp for air when the thing you were focusing on is done.

I noticed that after giving birth to my baby girl, the amount of times that I was out of breath due to holding my breath drastically increased. So, why was that and what can you do to help ease your breath (and your life)?

Let me start with WHY we tend to hold our breath. It simply is because we want something to turn out well, good, exactly as we want it to. So we tend to focus on that thing we want to accomplish so hard, we forget to breathe. Whether it is laying your child onto the breast or the bottle, changing a diaper, wanting your baby to finally fall asleep (and being as quiet as you can), putting the spoon in their mouth (instead of next to it and making a mess again) or any other thing you want to go just the way you planned with your child. In all these little moments during the day, we are prone to holding our breath as mothers and as parents in general. It’s like a kind of apnea, a parenting-apnea I would call it.

What happens when we hold our breath? We breathe in and hold it. We forget to breathe out, with all its consequences (and sometimes the other way around). On a bodily level you may find you are also holding tension in your shoulders, your face, your neck and your jaw. You might even find you are hunched forward a bit, while carrying your child, while feeding or while playing. This posture makes it harder for us to breathe easy. It reduces the space our lungs have to expand and diminishes the capacity of our lungs that we can use. The tension that we hold tends to grow as we are holding our breath, so that when at the end of the day we sit on the couch or lay in our beds, we feel our bodies ache.

On a cellular level the exchange of gasses is distorted when we hold our breath constantly. By holding the breath, the balance between the oxygen, carbon dioxide and nitric oxide exchange is influenced. In the long term, this causes the body to become more acidic, our kidneys begin to re-absorb sodium and our biochemistry is thrown off1.  Consequences are all sorts of complaints such as a lowered immune function, cognitive and learning challenges, sleep disorders, depression, weight gain, inflammation and holding of chronic tension.

When we hold our breath, the body gets into a state of emergency. It triggers the fight or flight system, which makes you feel anxious, aroused and active. This was designed in our development to flee when we were in acute danger, and it still works that way. This is immensely useful when you are driving in your car and you can avoid an accident, or when you need to take acute action to prevent your child from falling or worse. In those cases, we really need our fight or flight system. But when we are safe, feeding our children, it is not meant to go off and get triggered. However, when you constantly are holding your breath, this system is triggered unintentionally.

WHAT can you do about this parenting apnea?

It is important that you are aware of your own habits and behaviors. Do you recognize the holding of your breath? Or are you not aware of your breath yet? Take some time to observe your breath during the day and see what happens for you. Are you constantly breathing relaxed and deep? Great! Are you holding your breath? Great that you notice! This is the first step. Being aware of your breath.

And then, what can you do next?

There are many things you can do to unlearn holding your breath, although it takes practice and kindness towards yourself. This is probably a habit that has been in your system for a long time, so give yourself time to change it.

Perseverance is key. Compliment yourself when you notice you are holding your breath for no apparent reason. Just for noticing J

The next step is to consciously change your behavior in two phases:

  1. Change your posture: Sit up straight. open your chest up to give your lungs more space. Relax your shoulders, your jaw and face.
  2. Breathe

There are many exercises that you could do to enhance your breathing and it all depends on what you want to accomplish and what suits you. Below I will describe two of my favourite exercises that you can try and feel if they suit you.

Releasing Breath:

Observe your breath. Start to count the inhale and the exhale without changing anything. This will give you an indication of your typical breath pattern in that moment. Send the breath into your belly when you breathe. Start to lengthen the exhale so that it is one or two counts longer than the inhale. This obviously depends on how fast you count, but for me a relaxed tempo is 3 counts in and 4 out, or 4 in and 5 out. Relax your body a bit more on every exhale. Leave no pause between the inhale and exhale. Keep doing this for a few minutes, until you find yourself more relaxed.

Heart Coherency Breath:

Observe your breath. Start to count the inhale and exhale without changing anything. This will give you an indication of you typical breath pattern in that moment. Send the breath into your belly when you breathe. Then start to make the inhale and exhale the same length, for instance 4 counts in and 4 counts out with little to no pause in-between. When your breath is equal lengthen it with one or two counts. Keep your breath equal without pause, for instance breathe in for 5 counts and breathe out for 5 counts. Do this for a few minutes or until you find yourself more relaxed.

Both of these exercises are perfect when you have a few moments when you are sitting or walking, for instance when you are feeding or when you are walking behind a stroller. You can use them every time you notice you are holding your breath.

If you notice that it is difficult to relax your body and you keep holding tension, you might benefit from a Biodynamic Breathwork and Trauma Release session. This breathwork is specifically designed to release the underlying and unconscious tension that our bodies hold. Curious? Find out more and bookings via www.lisannevanniekerk.com/breathwork

Sources:

1 ‘Are you breathing? Do you have email apnea?’ by Linda Stone. https://lindastone.net/2014/11/24/are-you-breathing-do-you-have-email-apnea/

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