Oxytocin. commonly referred to as the ‘love hormone’, surges with the feeling of being “in love”. When we feel that connection with others through touch—kissing or cuddling—our oxytocin levels soar. Oxytocin—this amazing neurotransmitter—plays an enormous role from birth to breastfeeding and bonding with your newborn.
Optimal levels of oxytocin help us to birth, feed, and bond with our babies.
There are ways you can help to maximize your level of oxytocin during birth! Many of them are seemingly simple—Maintaining a quiet, dark and intimate birthing environment, your “safe space”; Keeping your partner in close proximity during labor; choosing a childbirth education class that teaches comfort measures to increase your confidence and reduce your stress levels; hiring a doula to provide you physical and emotional assistance during birth as well as holding space for you and your partner during labor, birth and the ‘golden hour’ postpartum. Using a postpartum doula to keep your house and environment stress-free for your “4th trimester”.
Your doula and your birth team can focus on removing any factors that come between you and the healthy flow of birthing hormones.
Lack of privacy, fear, and tension during birth can activate adrenaline and cause the “fight or flight” reaction. This, in turn, causes the release of stress hormones like cortisol and vasopressin. These act to suppress oxytocin. Release of oxytocin also stimulates the release of endorphins—the powerful hormones that help deal with pain sensations during active labor, transition and birth.
Synthetic Oxytocin, aka Pitocin is often used as a means of inducing or augmenting labor. While the effects of Pitocin on the mother’s body are usually beneficial for starting, speeding up or regulating mama’s contractions, the synthetic hormone falls dreadfully short in activating other birth hormones. Pitocin cannot stimulate the release of endorphins, making an ‘induced or augmented’ labor difficult to manage. This can lead to the use of an epidural, more Pitocin, delayed or prolonged labor, occasional fluctuation in baby’s vitals due to intensity of contractions, and eventually cesarean section. This is commonly referred to in the birth working world as “the domino effect”.
Your wishes as a birthing mom should be honored with respect to your relationship with your partner, the conditions of your birth space, and holding space for your intuition and birthing instincts. Get close to your partner to move that love hormone! Kiss, hug, slow dance, cuddle and tell each other love stories to promote the flow of Oxytocin. This can and does bring you closer to meeting your precious baby! Remember the wise words of Ina May Gaskin, “What got the baby in there also gets the baby out”. Ultimately partners must respect your wishes around touch and intimacy during labor and birth. However, being aware ahead of time about what makes labor work more efficiently and comfortably, may help establish your feelings about touch during labor.
Oxytocin builds exponentially in your body during labor, causing contractions to build in strength and duration until you birth your baby. As you near the end of your labor, your skin becomes flushed, your pupils dilate, and your senses heighten. Instinctively, this influx of hormones may lead you to seek out dark quiet places. This was a built in protective mechanism that helped early humans find safe places to have their babies. Newborn bonding is also enhanced by this instinctive behavior as it causes a baby to more easily focus on her mother’s face.
Finding ways to keep mothers and babies together after birth, skin-to-skin, can maximize oxytocin and take best advantage of its effects. Delaying routine care, such as baby’s first bath, until after her first feeding can help protect this initial window while you and your baby are learning to feed and bonding.
Another physiological response to the increase in Oxytocin is an increase in your skin temperature, which in turn creates a perfect ‘warmer’ for your new baby. There is homeostasis with regards to newborn temperature automatically when a baby is placed on her mother’s chest. Studies have shown that twins, each placed on opposite sides of a mother’s chest, one twin being too cool, and the other being too warm, will each come to a homeostatic temperature at the same time!
This auto-regulation diminishes complications related to temperature fluctuations in newborns. Circle back to the contact of baby on your chest—this increases your oxytocin levels which in turn assists you with your first latch and successful breastfeeding. It’s a win-win!
Oxytocin delivered through the placenta before birth also prepares baby to first greet his parents. Her senses are heightened for this first meeting—creating improved vision and the opportunity for bonding to begin in the golden hour following birth.
A baby placed on her mother’s belly after birth and left undisturbed will crawl up to the breast, locate the nipple, latch and suckle. This amazing skill is enhanced in large part by high oxytocin levels in mom and baby. Oxytocin helps in the flow of milk during breastfeeding, keeps the uterus contracting to control postpartum bleeding, and speeds postpartum recovery.
Optimally, newborns and mothers will remain skin-to-skin after birth and off and on for the “4th trimester” or 40 days after birth. This maximizes the flow of oxytocin and the advantages of its amazing effects. Delaying routine newborn care, such as taking weights and measures, bathing or donning a hat, until after the first breastfeed can help maximize this golden hour when your baby is gazing at you, taking her first feed at your breast, and continually bonding with both of her parents.
In the case of a c-section where immediate skin-to-skin isn’t available, these effects can be reproduced through lots of skin on skin time as soon as mom and baby are reunited. If possible, a family friendly cesarean should be promoted, where mama can provide this invaluable time to her new baby while the doctors attend to her post-surgical needs. Another option is immediate skin to skin with the birth partner-giving baby the same benefits of heat and early bonding.
Other caregivers, be it family members or a skilled postpartum doula, can help further the flow of the oxytocin. This facilitate further bonding by removing day-to-day stressors such as cooking, housecleaning, laundry or sibling care and focusing on the mom/baby dyad and their continued homeostasis through feeding, cuddling, kissing and bonding.
Oxytocin’s effects on a laboring mother, and her baby during labor, birth and the postpartum period, helps establish the relationship between a newborn and her mother. A relationship that continuously facilitates overall health and wellness in the mom/baby dyad.