The power of oxytocin – what does it do?
Oxytocin is vital for birth and caring for baby. But what is it?
Quite simply, oxytocin is a hormone released by the pituitary gland that causes contractions of the uterus during labour. It has an impact on other muscles in the body too, but we’re here to talk about birth.
It is the hormone of love, and it creates the fuzzy memories of birth. It is vital to promote bonding with your baby and for feeding them too. Low levels of oxytocin can also contribute to postnatal depression. So it is a really important hormone.
The key to successful labour is hormones.
There is a goody – Oxytocin and there is a baddy – Adrenaline.
These hormones find it very difficult to work together. You either have oxytocin flowing or you have adrenaline.
For labour and birth to proceed as beautifully and naturally as possible we need oxytocin and here is why:
In order to give birth biologically, we need contractions. A contraction of the uterine muscles, to push baby down on to the cervix, and then into the world; and to pull the cervix back over baby’s head.
The muscles should work harmoniously together to push the baby out of the cervix and down the birth canal.
The one and only hormone responsible for this process is oxytocin. This wonderful hormone, quite often referred to as the ‘love’ hormone is pretty awesome.
Oxytocin is produced when we laugh, when we have sex, when we breastfeed when you see your baby for the first time. That happy, warm and fuzzy feeling that rushes throughout your body is oxytocin. So it’s pretty obvious that we need oxytocin by the bucket load to give birth.
But in order for our body to produce oxytocin we need to feel SAFE, RELAXED and UNOBSERVED.
How to keep the oxytocin flowing during labour
In early labour you could sit and watch a funny film, it will help the oxytocin flow. If you are planning a hospital birth, take something that reminds you of home.
My best advice is to take your pillow, a big cosy blanket or scarf. They smell of you and make you feel safe. Plus, they will come in very hand if you need to stay in afterwards!
Some other tops tips:
- Massage – get those birth partners working! – this also boosts endorphins, our body’s natural painkiller
- The Glide breath – we teach this in our pregnancy classes
- Educating yourself – feeling fully prepared for any unexpected turns
- Dimmed lights
- Candles, fairy lights or projector
- Water – warm bath or shower)
- Calming music
- Home comforts (like a pillow & pictures of loved ones)
- Using headphones and eye mask (to help maintain the safe bubble)
- Quiet environment
- Positive language
- Positive birth affirmations
- Supportive partner and midwife
- Aromatherapy oils (with guidance)
- Place of birth – where do you feel safest? This is down to personal choice. Home, birth centre or hospital.
Do not underestimate the power of education. Knowledge is power after all.
CubCare Active Antenatal classes focus on how the process of labour works and how you can help move things along, and cope really well at the same time.
Time is spent getting familiar with techniques, and how you, your baby, your body, and birth partner can work together to make birth positive.
What do we want less of in labour?
Adrenaline is something we want to keep minimised as much as possible during birth.
Adrenaline is the fight or flight hormone. If it is allowed to rise in labour it can block that fabulous labour hormone oxytocin, and endorphins and can make contractions feel so much more difficult. Oxytocin and endorphins are designed to work together, the higher the oxytocin, the stronger the contractions. The stronger the contractions, the higher the endorphins to help manage any sensations.
If you feel anxious, worried or threatened in any way then your body will naturally start to produce adrenaline. This will redirect oxygen in the body, taking blood to the arms and legs in preparation for you to stay and fight the threat, or flee to a safe space.
When this happens in birth, oxygen is taken away from the uterus. In extreme circumstances this can result in contractions fading away. Both due to lowered oxygen and oxytocin. But more often it results in more difficult contractions – less oxygen, muscles struggling with less oxygen and less endorphins because of the adrenaline. Added to this, stomach muscles, shoulders and jaws being tense from the stress, and a struggling uterus has a brick wall of muscle tension to contend with too!
What might cause Adrenaline production during birth?
Be aware of what may trigger adrenaline production for you. Think about what you can do to stop the fight or flight reflex from being triggered. Learn positive coping strategies for birth and give yourself a fighting chance of a positive birth experience!
Some common reasons why adrenaline might rise in labour:
- Car Journey
- Lack of food/hydration
- A full bladder
- Hospital environment
- Unfamiliar staff
- Bright lights
- Being talked to or disturbed
- Vaginal examinations
- Restricted movement
- Negative Language
Be careful with artificial oxytocin
Synthetic, or artificial oxytocin is commonly given during labour or just afterwards. It can either be given to speed up contractions or even create them – generally found during an induction.
Almost everybody is given synthetic oxytocin after birth to help speed up the delivery of the placenta. But is this a good idea as standard practice?
Research published in March 2023 has confirmed that when synthetic oxytocin is given in labour, neither mums nor babies will experience the direct beneficial effects that we see when this hormone is secreted naturally. Artifical oxytocin acts differently and does not reach the brain – so the beneficial rise in endorphins does not happen in the same way.
Dr Sara Wickman, a high profile expert in the birth world explains:
Millions of women and babies are exposed to synthetic oxytocin during labour, because this is given to induce and augment (speed up) labour, as well as in medically managed placental birth and to stop bleeding after birth.
In some situations, such as when bleeding occurs after birth, synthetic oxytocin is lifesaving and genuinely warranted.
In many others, including induction and augmentation of labour without good reason, the risks of giving synthetic oxytocin may not outweigh any possible benefits.
All too often the real risks and benefits to procedures are not fully communicated, but can have a huge impact on birth and postnatal journeys. That is why it is SO important that you undertake your own research, or find quality antenatal education.