Last week, we talked about the role of endorphins in natural childbirth and today we turn our focus to oxytocin, another crucial hormone in the symphony of chemicals created naturally in the body to help mom and baby through childbirth. There are four major hormonal systems active during labor: endorphins, oxytocin, adrenaline and noradrenaline, and prolactin.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin, known as the “love hormone,” is a hormone and neuropeptide that causes both physiological and behavioral effects when produced in the body. It is produced in the hypothalamus of the brain and is released into the bloodstream via the pituitary gland.
Our bodies produce oxytocin when we are attracted to a mate, during lovemaking (it assists with arousal, fosters bonding and may facilitate sperm and egg transport), following positive social interactions (it can even potentially improve wound healing following such positive interactions, say experts), and with other positive experiences. It is thought to enhance our capacity to love ourselves and others.
Oxytocin is produced in pregnancy, levels increase significantly during active labor and childbirth, and both mom and baby produce oxytocin after birth and as long as baby breastfeeds.
Oxytocin evokes feelings of contentment, trust, empathy, calmness and security and reduces anxiety and fear. Under certain circumstances, oxytocin can hinder the release of cortisol, or stress hormones.
What are the functions and roles of oxytocin in childbirth?
Oxytocin plays a major role in the following:
- Uterine contractions that help facilitate dilation in labor
- Facilitating the milk let-down reflex
- Fostering the mother-baby bond
- Encouraging maternal behavior in the first hour after birth
- Released during breastfeeding, oxytocin causes mild uterine contractions after birth to expel the placenta and close of many blood vessels to prevent bleeding
- Assisting the uterus in clotting the placental attachment point postpartum
What helps to facilitate the production of oxytocin naturally during labor?
Unhindered production of oxytocin is important in labor because oxytocin is responsible in large part for uterine contractions. Oxytocin initiates labor and helps it keep going strong.
Because the production of oxytocin is so connected to our emotions, it is paramount that a laboring mama feel calm, secure, and uninhibited in her environment and that she trust those around her. A dim room without too much excitement or distraction is an environment conducive to the unhindered production of oxytocin.
Natural ways to stimulate oxytocin production in labor include:
- Caring, non-medical touch
- Nipple stimulation (this can be helpful in getting labor started in some cases, or to increase strength and frequency of contractions)
- Laughter and humor
- Kissing (Ina May, a famous midwife, touts “smooching” as a great way to keep labor going)
- Gentle exercise, dancing and rhythmic movement
- Feeling grateful and loving (a partner’s words and actions can be so instrumental in helping mama create oxytocin and so help her labor along)
- The repetitive use of mantras, prayer or sounds
- Meditation, positive visualization and hypnosis
- Warm bath
What can diminish oxytocin levels in labor?
Again, because of the emotional connection, any experience of fear, anxiety, stress, tension, discomfort, or distrust can negatively effect oxytocin production during labor. A feeling of being watched can also hinder oxytocin release. The use of synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin)—which also stimulates contractions and is used to induce labor—can also slow the body’s own production of oxytocin.
Oxytocin in Breastfeeding
Oxytocin, also called the cuddle hormone, is released by both mama and baby during breastfeeding. It can cause slight sleepiness, mild euphoria, a higher pain threshold, and increased love for one another. It also helps build the attraction and strengthen the bond between mama and baby.
As you can see, oxytocin is an amazing gift and tool our bodies make to help us through childbirth and postpartum.