After the 1998 Québec ice storm, researchers at the The Douglas Mental Health University Institute and McGill University found, in researching Project Ice Storm, that the stress endured by pregnant mothers during the storm impacted the DNA of their babies which in turn affected their babies’ genetic expression, ie: which genes got turned on or off.

Photo by Alicia Petresc on Unsplash

Motherhood has always carried with it a unique kind of stress and pregnancy can be an anxious time, but greatly increased levels of stress are particularly impactful for pregnant mothers and their babies. The human nervous system seeks safety, and our stress responses are designed to keep us safe and alive, but studies like Project Ice Storm show that those nervous system responses to perceived threats affect more than just the pregnant mum.

Luckily there is a simple thing that’s extremely effective for lowering stress, and it’s available to both expecting and postpartum mothers all of the time.

According to The Douglas Institute in Québec, “The exposure of an expectant mother to stressful situations can influence the cognitive, behavioural and physical development of the children. In addition it may result in an increased risk of other mental health disorders, such as autism and depression.” 

Researchers in London have also found that prenatal stress in the mother can affect their baby’s brain development. Lead researcher, Alexandra Lautarescu, from King’s College London said that mothers who were more stressed during pregnancy, had babies whose white matter was altered.

So, expecting mothers should clearly avoid stressful situations and experiences. Simple. I can end this article here, right?

Except here we are are, in the middle of a global pandemic, when women are still pregnant and babies are still being born.

Pregnancy during COVID19 may not force pregnant mums to live for days in the freezing cold with no electricity, but it still carries with it major challenges that mothers are facing for the very first time, and anxiety levels are up.

Many expecting mothers are now forced to have the majority of their prenatal appointments done virtually, or alone. And when they go into labor, they are not being allowed to have their partner or doula with them in the hospital delivery room when they give birth.

While these may seem like small sacrifices to many, to a mother facing what will be likely the most challenging athletic event of her life, lasting longer than a marathon, these sacrifices can be devastating.

I feel angry, frustrated, and isolated,” says Amanda Fay, an expectant mother of her first child in New Hampshire, U.S.A. “After our second prenatal appointment everything changed and women were mandated to come to their appointments alone. I was alone at my 12 week ultrasound. I was alone at my 20 week ultrasound. I have been alone at every single prenatal appointment and will be until the last. I have to be masked at all appointments, enter through special doors, and have my temperature taken immediately upon entering at every appointment. My appointments were all spaced out, it was very hard waiting at some times, up to 8 weeks to hear the heartbeat again, make sure everything was going along smoothly. I just wanted what all the other women got to get during their pregnancies, it has not been fair. At points it’s been very high stress because I also have the added overarching fear about getting sick and hurting my baby!”

In British Columbia, Melissa Offner faced similar circumstances leading up to the birth of her first baby and felt the strain as well. “Having my prenatal appointments canceled or changed to online appointments was incredibly stressful as I was getting closer and closer to my due date,” she says. “The thing that definitely scared me the most about giving birth during the pandemic was the idea of having to give birth alone in the hospital. Although I had complete confidence in the Strathcona Midwifery Collective, giving birth was already something that petrified me, so the thought of not being able to have my husband or doula present was beyond stressful.”

Whether mothers and all birthing bodies are pregnant or postpartum, there is a need for greater support in all phases of parenthood. We are often faced with daunting tasks as we raise our little ones, and the pandemic is only making it worse, but pregnant or not, there is a resource available to you 100% of the time, and 20 – 25,000 times a day, that can help you manage and lower stress when you need it most.

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Diaphragmatic Breathing for pregnancy

Diaphragmatic breathing has been scientifically proven to lower stress levels and activate what’s known as the parasympathetic, or “rest and digest and restore” nervous system, a subsystem of the body’s autonomic nervous system. Diaphragmatic breathing has been shown to help to reduce pain, and induce relaxation.

When done correctly, diaphragmatic breathing is actually not the “belly breath” you might think you know. It involves a deep breath that not only allows the belly to relax, but also relaxes the pelvic floor, and expands the ribcage laterally and 360 degrees, instead of just vertically into the upper chest. When we breathe 20 – 25,000 times every day, how we breathe matters a lot.

Start your diaphragmatic breath by inhaling through the nose, allowing the air to fill your lungs and expand your lower ribcage into your back ribs and out to the sides – if you place your palms on your lower ribs, you should feel your inhaled breath expanding your ribcage laterally into your hands.

Continue to inhale slowly, allowing your belly and pelvic floor to relax, and you should feel your belly naturally expand without being pushed or forced outward.

Exhale slowly through the nose and allow everything to return. Repeat, with the aim being that this becomes your “default” for how  you breathe. 

Nasal breathing – inhaling and exhaling through the nose – is particularly beneficial here because it activates the diaphragm, which then pulls air more deeply into lungs, increasing oxygen intake. The sinus cavity also produces nitric oxide, which kills bacteria, dilates blood vessels, and ensures the body releases oxygen to your cells. Mouth breathing causes shallow breathing in the upper chest, leading to anxiety and more stress.

When babies are born, they breathe through their nose, and you can watch their bellies rise and fall as they breathe diaphragmatically. This is how we come into the world.

You might say, “but then we grow up and change, so doesn’t it make sense that our breathing would change, too?” Unfortunately this shift in our breathing patterns is a sign of how our modern, and often sedentary, lifestyles shift our breath into our chests and when we become habitual “chest breathers,” we limit the diaphragm’s range of motion and thus our overall function. 

If the diaphragm can’t move properly, we limit the amount of oxygen we can take in, and we shut off the function of multiple inner core muscles we need for postural stabilization and optimal whole-body function.

When the body no longer receives the oxygen it needs, you start to feel more anxious because you have now activated the sympathetic or “fight, flight, or freeze” nervous system. Chest breathing alone tells the nervous system that you are unsafe and there is something to fight or run away from, even when there is no actual threat.

By consciously shifting the task of breathing back to your primary breathing muscle – the diaphragm, you will immediately take load off the secondary or “helper” breathing muscles which can reduce neck, shoulder, and back pain, and reduce or end some headaches.

Diaphragmatic breath is available to us all of the time, wherever we are, and the physiological impact it has on our stress response is real. Not only that, but diaphragmatic breathing is also the first step toward creating a more functional inner core which impacts all of our movements of daily life.

Many mothers suffer in pregnancy and postpartum from core and pelvic floor dysfunction like abdominal separation called diastasis recti, pelvic organ prolapse, incontinence, and back, pelvic, and knee pain, but diaphragmatic breathing is a powerful place to start healing and even preventing these dysfunctions.

Lower stress and create better core strength and function? YES PLEASE!

The inner core “unit”  is made up of 4 muscles or groups of muscles (the diaphragm, transversus abdominis, pelvic floor, and multifidi), located between the ribs and pelvis, that are designed to work in concert with each other. When they do, the body is able to function more optimally with less pain, sometimes instantly.

But diaphragmatic breath is the conductor. Without that, the other muscles don’t know what to do and are unable to function the way they’re meant to. When the diaphragm moves the way it should, (vertically, horizontally front to back and laterally), the pelvic diaphragm can respond by relaxing and dropping slightly when the diaphragm contracts (you inhale), and contracting subtly to lift ever so slightly when your diaphragm relaxes (you exhale). Like a buoy on the surface of a quiet ocean, the pelvic floor should move gently with your breath. Then your deepest core muscle, the TVA, can relax and contract more optimally, and the entire core gets stronger and more balanced in its function.

All just because of allowing your primary breathing muscle to do its job.

More Insight: Check out this helpful article on tips for fitness routines when pregnant.

Author: Maggie Yount – Owner/Founder of Whole Healthy Mama and the OptiMom® Method, PregnancySāf Elite Coach, PPCES, PPDCC, CPT, Mother of two. You can find here online here.

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