If there was one thing you were going to do before giving birth, learning about the hormone oxytocin should be it!
Oxytocin is often called the hormone of love and is involved in social connection, relationships, empathy, trust, sex, labour, bonding and breastfeeding. It plays a big role in the chemical process that triggers labour to begin and is the hormone that causes the uterus to contract. It will be at the highest level it will ever be at the moment of birth.
Here are 10 facts about oxytocin that can guide you towards a smooth birth and positive post-partum experience.
1. Oxytocin works like a key in a lock at oxytocin receptor sites in the body. In the 1st and 2nd trimesters you do not have very many oxytocin receptor sites on your uterus. This is a safety mechanism to keep
you from going into labour. As you approach birth the number of receptor sites increases dramatically.
2. Oxytocin synergises with melatonin so is at its highest levels at night, hence why lots of babies are born at night and why it is recommended to labour in a dark, warm and comfortable environment.
3. It is known as the shy hormone and is why a labouring woman needs privacy and not to feel watched or disturbed during labour. Often labour slows down once a woman reaches the unfamiliar surroundings of a hospital. Bright lights, questions, observation and vaginal examinations are not conducive to high levels of oxytocin. That’s why it’s often recommended to stay home as long as possible in labour.
4. It is produced by the hypothalamus a deep, primitive part of your brain. If you are spending too much time in your rational brain by talking, feeling self-conscious, being too mentally alert or are fearful, oxytocin production will decrease causing contractions to stall or stop.
5. It works in cooperation with your body’s endorphins, creating a state of euphoria and suppresses the production of stress hormones to enable us to cope better with labour. Pain relieving drugs used in labour inhibit oxytocin release, sometimes resulting in a long labour or “failure to progress” leading to intervention or c-section.
6. Your natural oxytocin crosses the placenta and studies show that this helps protect the fetal brain and make it less vulnerable to damage from oxygen deprivation.
7. High levels of oxytocin also help the separation of the placenta and reduces the chance of post-partum haemorrhage.
8. Oxytocin is the hormone that enables us to bond and fall in love with our babies. Uninterrupted skin-to-skin and eye contact between mother and baby immediately after birth will optimise oxytocin release, increasing bonding and will create a mother’s protective instinct.
9. It works with prolactin for breastfeeding. Oxytocin causes the muscles around the glands in your breast to contract. This release of breast milk is called the let-down reflex. As your baby continues to breastfeed, more oxytocin is released so your milk continues to flow. It is also associated with inducing a state of calm during feeding and relaxes both mum and baby.
10. Natural oxytocin is produced in the brain and travels throughout the body. If the synthetic form of oxytocin
(Syntocinon) is used to induce or to speed up labour, it cannot enter the brain and will only act on the organs, not giving you the brain benefits of maternal behaviour. It can cause your brain to turn down your natural levels of oxytocin and is said to be a factor in mothers having trouble breastfeeding or bonding with their baby.
Having high levels of oxytocin flowing is a crucial element in a smooth labour and birth. To promote the body’s production of oxytocin a woman needs to labour upright and use gravity so that baby is pressed against the cervix. This creates a feedback system to release more and more oxytocin and increase the strength of contractions. A woman must also feel loved, safe, supported, nurtured and calm. The birth environment needs to be a private, dark and quiet space. There is a common saying used by birth workers, “what gets the baby in, gets the baby out” so things like soft touch, tender words, kissing, cuddling and listening to love songs are some great ways to promote the release of oxytocin in labour.
Knowledge is power, so the more you understand about what your body is doing in labour the more you can work with it and optimise your chances of a positive birth.
Yvette Julian-Arndt is a mum to two gorgeous boys and with her husband, loves living on the Mornington Peninsula. As a childbirth educator and the owner of Project Birth, she is passionate about educating and inspiring couples for this life changing event. Find out more at www.projectbirth.com.au or join her on Facebook and Instagram for more great labour and birth tips.