For anyone about to have a baby, an understanding of Oxytocin and the best conditions to maximise its production is essential. Here are my thoughts on what oxytocin is, how it works, what can prevent it from working effectively and what a woman can do to overcome those challenges.
Oxytocin – The Love Hormone
Oxytocin is the queen of all hormones – The term was originally coined in the 1920s and was a derivative of the Greek words oxus and tokos meaning quick childbirth. Oxytocin has more recently been named as the “hormone of love” by Michel Odent who says that “Whatever facet of love we consider, oxytocin is involved”.
Oxytocin is released in any situation that we feel “love”: during love-making, birth, breastfeeding, bonding, cuddling and so on. It truly is the X factor that drives couples together and that keeps them together. The production of oxytocin leads to feelings of calm, well-being, patience, increased social behaviour, lower blood pressure, better digestion and better healing. It even makes breastfeeding mothers more tolerant of monotony, and thus better able to cope with the challenges of early motherhood. And as it is not a “one-hit wonder”, the more oxytocin we have in our system, the more we produce and the better we feel. In research it has been shown to have a cumulative effect, so, the more frequently we are exposed to oxytocin, the longer the effect lasts.
Oxytocin during pregnancy
During pregnancy, oxytocin levels are low, but they begin to increase towards the end of the last trimester. During pregnancy, oxytocin triggers frequent uterine contractions, which help to strengthen the uterus and maintain the pregnancy, stimulating the flow of blood from the placenta to the baby. These are often known as “Braxton Hicks” contractions. Even though no one is exactly sure how labour is triggered, we do know that it is oxytocin which is the “driver” behind labour. It is the pulsating release of oxytocin which triggers the long muscles of the uterus to reach down and gently ease open the circular muscles of the cervix. As the uterus contracts, signals are sent to the brain to produce more oxytocin, which helps the uterus contract more effectively, thus making more oxytocin, and so on. This wonderful cycle of triggers and hormone production will continue throughout labour, as long as the mother is not disturbed (see below).
Oxytocin during labour
During labour, oxytocin receptors throughout the body are on high alert. These receptors are found in the cervix, birth canal, perineum, vagina and nipples, and even in the skin. Gentle pressure, massage and stimulation in any of these areas (the release of oxytocin during massage is well reported) ensure that the production of oxytocin will remain steady and high, as long as there is no interference from fear-induced adrenalin, drugs or artificial hormones (see below). Once the gap in the cervix is large enough for the baby to pass through, and the head begins to press down into the birth canal, the receptors there send a new wave of signals, which trigger another wave of oxytocin, as the energy of the contractions changes to one of pushing down rather than opening the cervix.
As well as the physical effects, oxytocin helps a woman to mentally “go off to a different plane” or “go into the zone” so that she “lets go” on a psychological, as well as a physiological level, allowing her body to take control.
At the moment of birth, if it is undisturbed, unobserved and there is minimal interference, a woman will experience a higher level of oxytocin in her body than at any other time. The reasons for this are many fold. Firstly, it is designed to produce an overwhelming feeling of love towards the baby, facilitating the process of “falling in love”. Again, nature is very clever, as this wonderful feeling is a powerful incentive and driver for a mother to look after her baby.
So what can interrupt the flow of Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a very sensitive and shy hormone. It works wonderfully well when a woman is feeling safe, warm and unobserved – so the conditions in which a baby is made are the best conditions in which to birth a baby. However for many women giving birth these days, there may be times when these conditions are not possible or are disturbed. If a woman is not aware of these and why oxytocin is slowing down then it can lead to a stall in labour and then possibly on to the cruelly termed “failure to progress”.
- any sudden disturbance or interference
- anxiety or fear
- feeling observed
- feeling cold
- being exposed to loud noises
- stimulation of the neo cortex eg talking, form filling, analysing
- medical interventions such as induction, epidural, anaesthetic injections or episiotomy
By being aware that these things may interrupt the flow of oxytocin and hence possibly stall or slow down your labour, then you can plan ways in advance to deal with any eventuality on the big day.
What can I do if this happens?
Lets face it – some of these things are likely to happen during labour – it would be almost impossible for none of these to take place. So if you experience any of these, then my advice is to accept that they have happened, let the moment pass so it is in the past, then put the some or all of the following into action:-
- take a few moments as soon as you can to stop everything you are doing,
- take a few deep breaths
- close your eyes
- use your mind to become still again
- put on some relaxing music
- have a long hug with someone
- turn down the lighting
- burn some aromatherapy oils
- practice being really mindful and aware of your breathing and your body
- use visualisation to help take your mind to a calm place
- count slowly to 10 talking a deep breath with each count.
- do what you can to make your birthing space becomes quiet, dark, safe and warm
- practice relaxing each of the muscle groups in your body
- get into a warm bath
If you have been using Natal Hypnotherapy then you can also use the techniques you have practiced, especially 321 relax, your rapid relaxation trigger, shaking the apples and creating your Baobab (You can learn more about these techniques from The Effective Birth Preparation book or by attending one of our popular Natal Hypnotherapy courses around the UK).
So in summary, by understanding how Oxytocin works and the conditions in which it flows most freely, you can begin to prepare your environment as well as your physical and mental preparation. Plan ways to make your birthing space as calm, quiet, dark and safe as possible – You can make this happen in almost any setting by having an eye mask, ear plugs, a favourite blanket or even duvet to snuggle under and someone with you that you love and trust. Learn techniques to help you relax deeply, breath calmly and stay mentally calm such as meditation, mindfulness, yoga or hypnotherapy. And remember that if you experience any of the disturbances listed above, you can still get back into a calm birthing rhythm and so encourage this queen of hormones to reign supreme!
If you would like to learn more about hypnosis and how it can help you stay calmer, more focused and so better able to release this wonderful hormone click here.
To get started straight away you can download a free 15 minute Pregnancy Relaxation track.
You can read more about this queen of hormones with my Top 20 facts about Oxytocin blog post.