Oxytocin – or the ‘love hormone’ as it’s sometimes known – plays a huge part in the process of labour, birth and breastfeeding. Here Daisy teacher Chloe Sena tells us more about this amazing hormone…
I started writing a blog post about all the different hormones involved in labour and birth, but when I got to thinking about oxytocin, I soon decided it needed a whole blog to itself. So here it is! Let’s explore the power of oxytocin and delve a bit deeper in to this remarkable hormone.
What is it?
Oxytocin is a hormone produced in the hypothalamus and released into the blood stream by the posterior pituitary gland. This is the hormone that makes us feel good when we hug, kiss, feel attracted to someone, have skin to skin, or when we have sex.
Oxytocin also regulates social interaction and sexual reproduction as well as playing a massive role in bonding between men and women, and parents and their babies. It is also an antidote for depression. Pretty amazing hey? By understanding this wonderful hormone in more detail, it means you can help your health in general. For the purpose of this blog, it can have a powerful impact on your labour, birth and postnatal experience.
Role in Labour
As labour starts, the body’s oxytocin levels begin to rise and this is what stimulates the ripening of the cervix by causing the release of prostaglandins. Oxytocin also signals the regular contractions of the uterus. As labour progresses, the oxytocin levels continue to rise, and this hormone can be likened to a kind of fuel for labour. As the levels of oxytocin get higher in the body, this causes labour to move through the different stages – oxytocin helps labour to keep going strong! So, just as you need to make sure you have enough fuel in your car for the engine to work smoothly; your body in labour needs the oxytocin levels to be high enough for you body to work efficiently.
Encouraging the release of Oxytocin
You can help your body release oxytocin during labour in a number of ways, and this is where your birth partner can help too. Keeping your birth space calm and tranquil and deciding what anchors will help you relax during labour. Things like candles/low lighting/music (maybe that you are used to from Daisy Birthing classes) will really help. Preparing for birth and understanding how it all works can help too as it will take away some of the fear of the unknown. All these little things will help when it comes to the big day as the production of oxytocin can be directly related to how calm, relaxed and focused the birthing mother feels. If a mother feels calm, supported, at ease with her caregivers and her environment, oxytocin will be produced and released into the blood stream more easily.
Oxytocin levels are at their highest just before the birth and lead to the euphoria women feel in those first precious moments with their baby after birth. Oxytocin release works in a bit of cycle and this is the same during labour. The pituitary gland releases oxytocin which is carried through the bloodstream to the uterus, stimulating contractions of this muscle. This then encourages baby’s head down on to the cervix which then stimulates the release of more oxytocin. It is a positive feedback loop, where release of the hormone stimulates an action which means more of the hormone is released. This is obviously very important when considering oxytocin in terms of fuel for labour.
What stops Oxytocin?
If feeling calm and relaxed can help increase oxytocin levels in the body, what can inhibit the production of this all-important hormone? If a birthing woman feels afraid or scared, this can stimulate the release of adrenaline. Adrenaline is often known as the ‘fight or flight’ hormone and can stop the production of oxytocin. This system makes sense for mammals birthing in the wild, as it diverts oxygen to the systems that need it most for survival and will slow down labour or stop it altogether. But adrenaline will have the same effect on women in labour and studies have shown that high levels of adrenaline – or ‘catecholamines’ as fight or flight hormones are collectively known – can lead to longer labours.
Immediately after birth
Skin to skin contact with their newborn means the mother’s body continues to release oxytocin, stimulating the uterus to contract and the placenta to come away from the uterine wall. As the oxytocin levels are at their highest immediately after birth, this incredible hormone plays a massive role in bonding, and establishing feeding in those early minutes and hours after birth. Blood oxytocin levels peak for mother and baby at around 30 minutes after birth and start to reduce after an hour, meaning for this first hour – mum and baby are both flooded with oxytocin, the hormone of love! Doesn’t this just provide more evidence for how important it is for mum and baby to have a protected first golden hour together whenever it is possible?
And not just that……
Oxytocin levels stimulate the let-down reflex during breastfeeding and it continues to be released as baby suckles. During the entire breastfeeding journey oxytocin levels can help the mother feel relaxed, can reduce stress and lower blood pressure. If bottle feeding, feeding baby skin to skin can naturally increase the body’s oxytocin levels, encouraging bonding between caregiver and infant.
You can see why the wonderful love hormone, oxytocin needed a blog all to itself, it is an incredible hormone with so many positive influences for us and our bodies, both during labour, and indeed in life itself to help us on our journeys.
Love Daisy x
Some further reading