Oxytocin in Childbirth: A Labor of Love

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?

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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.

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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
  • Relaxation
  • 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 breastfeedingOxytocin, 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.

Birth Story: “We all have this maternal power~ we just have to believe in it…”

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The birth of baby Raina

Contractions started early in the morning on the 27th of November but never gained momentum – in fact, they stopped for most of the day – until Raina’s big sister Elya went to bed. Around 9:00pm then, I finally laid down and decided to get some sleep. The minute my head hit the pillow, however, my contractions started again. You have got to be kidding me, I remember thinking. I laid there for about an hour, trying to rest since they were only about 20 minutes apart, but eventually went out in to the living room to see my husband, Peter.

Once I was there and sitting on the ball, my contractions got stronger and closer together until eventually we thought, “This is it!” That’s when they spaced out again (around 11pm). I felt incredibly frustrated and worried that this “start-stop” pattern would continue throughout the night! Sensing my exhaustion, Peter kept urging me to lie down and sleep, but I knew that if I could just get my little girl’s head in the right position (pressing down on my cervix) I’d be in “real” labor. I therefore started doing squats during contractions, and in no time, was in full blown active labor, throwing up, and calling the midwives telling them “it was time”. This was around 11:30pm.

We got to Health Foundations birth center at 12:45am on November 28th, 2012 and my contractions were 3 mins apart. The minute I walked in and hugged my doula and friend, Aubrey, I started crying, feeling so grateful that she was there and that soon I would be meeting my baby girl! Amy, my midwife, immediately told me to get in the shower. “Why isn’t she starting the birth tub?” I thought, but brushed it aside and got in anyway; and thank God too, because the water felt amazing! My birth mix started playing (which was made for me by my best friends) making the whole scene surreal and emotional. Tears started streaming down my face, and I even managed to sing along to “Wade in the Water” by Eva Cassidy (in between contractions, mind you). I felt such joy and excitement for what was about to happen, it was unreal.

Finally, Amy and Aubrey told me to get out of the shower and try sitting down. There was NO way that was going to happen since Raina’s head was causing too much pressure, making any other position except standing unbearable. I leaned over the bed then, and put my head on some pillows. I squeezed Peter’s poor hand for the millionth time (he was smart and took off his ring this time) and Aubrey massaged my shoulders and neck, which felt amazing since I had pulled some muscles during contractions; again I started thinking, Why isn’t Amy running the water? I know I’ve got to be close. (Amy told me later that she thought I wasn’t even in active labor yet since I was being so “quiet” and “jovial”).

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Eventually I demanded they fill up the tub so I could get in. I also started telling them that I “couldn’t do this any longer” and that they had to “tell me what to do!” I knew from my actions that I was in transition but didn’t care. I needed my support team to tell me it was almost time to push so I could allow my body to do what it needed to. That’s when my water broke and I threw up again. I knew I was near the end, but since Amy still hadn’t checked my cervix I started doubting my intuition and resisting “the urge”.

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Once in the water, I immediately relaxed. Amy ‘checked me’ and told me Raina’s head was super low (which I was able to feel!) and that I was ‘complete’. What a relief! I thought. She then told me to start pushing with little pushes if I wanted to so I could ease into the “second stage”. This advice was extremely helpful and allowed me to gradually prepare for the “big push”, which eventually came from a source greater than myself – in 3 minutes then, I had my beautiful baby girl in my arms! I started crying, “Oh my God oh my God oh my God!” and kissing Raina’s perfect little head. Peter was crying too, and we kissed and marveled at the beautiful creation we had in front of us.

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Raina was born at 2:23am (7lbs 11oz and 22 inches long) after three hours of incredible and intense labor. It was the most amazing and gratifying birth ever. My first one was amazing too, but this experience had been exactly how I’d wanted it (except for the hope of being able to push without guidance. Nothing is ever perfect with Life.)

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I wouldn’t have had the birth of my dreams without Peter, Aubrey, Amy and Amanda (my midwives) by my side. I am also SO thankful that I now have beautiful and gorgeous pictures (taken by the lovely and wonderful Danica) to remind me of how strong and powerful I am. We all have this maternal power; we just have to believe in it, claim it, and trust in it, so we can fully let go in the welcomings of Life.

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All Photos by Danica Donnelly Photography