Oxytocin – what it is and how to make the most of this amazing hormone

queen of hormonesFor 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

pregnanct woman in the grassDuring 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 labourkeep calm and release oxytocin

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”.

Here are the main reasons that can result in a slowing down in the production of oxytocin.

Pregnant lady hiding behind her hands

  • any sudden disturbance or interference
  • anxiety or fear
  • embarrassment
  • 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
Effective Birth Preparation Book
Effective Birth Preparation Book

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.

Click to download your FREE Pregnancy relaxation track

You can read more about this queen of hormones with my Top 20 facts about Oxytocin blog post.

The secret to coping with labour

scared of giving birth
Are you scared of giving birth?

If you are currently pregnant or even planning to have a baby then the thought of giving birth will have crossed your mind once or twice!  From those cringe worthy sex education videos to One Born Every Minute the message most women get is clear. Birth hurts like hell, that you will be in labour for days, that you are likely to scream the place down and turn the air blue with a few choice words begging for drugs. Is it any wonder then that 8 out of 10 women in a Mother and Baby survey were terrified of giving birth?  So could there be a secret to coping with labour that is not publicly “out there”?

Well, if you were to switch over to the Discovery channel and were to watch a programme of any other mammal giving birth, she would be quiet, calm, mobile and seem to just get on with it.  We know that mammals register and feel pain, yet somehow during labour they don’t seem to show the same characteristics as women on OBEM.

So do you think that maybe there is a chance that women could also experience labour and birth being calm, more in control and better able to deal with the pain? What is this secret to coping with labour and how you can turn from a potential screaming banshee to a calm, serene birthing goddess?

Well, it all comes down to hormones and how you are feeling in the lead up to and during the labour.  If you are scared your body will be in a “fight or flight” mode and birth becomes tough; if you are calm, relax and breathe slowly, your body can just get on with it. To put it into context, imagine you are labouring alone out in the wild. Suppose you saw or even thought you saw a dangerous animal lurking in the shadows. What do you think would happen? Would you have a conscious choice on what happens next? Simply believing there is a wild animal in your birth space would instantly stimulate the “fight or flight” response. Your muscles would tighten, blood would flow to your limbs and contractions would slow down or stop and would not resume until you felt safe.

This fear, whether real or imagined, activates the nervous system to produce adrenaline (danger hormone), which gives you a burst of power to fight or to run away. Your cervix tightens (to prevent giving birth where it is not safe) and the increased level of adrenaline neutralises the oxytocin (the hormone responsible for your contractions) so that your body slows down or even stops labour. All this “fight or flight” preparation uses a great deal of energy and as our bodies were only designed to be in this state for a few minutes, you can imagine that staying in this state for prolonged periods of time will lead to prolonged labour, horribly painful contractions which will be extremely exhausting for both mum and baby.

This is essentially about fear, any fear – fear of pain, fear of dying, fear of tearing. Your nervous system does not know the difference between fear from real danger or imagined fear, from what you may have seen on the tele or told by friends and family and so your body will respond in the same way to both. If you go into labour feeling and being frightened, your system will respond accordingly.

So what is the secret to coping with labour and birth?

Ultimately it is about learning to let go of fear and to work with your body to stay as relaxed and calm as possible. By being able to relax during labour, your body responds in a very different way to the fear scenario described above. When you are relaxed, your breathing is even, ensuring a high level of oxygen is entering both you and your baby’s body, helping your baby remain calm and stable. Increased oxygen stimulates the production of oxytocin (hormone responsible for contractions) and the natural pain-killer, endorphins. As the uterus has no resistance or tension from surrounding muscles, the contractions are more effective and more manageable. Other natural hormones also increase in including relaxin which allows the tissue of the birth canal to relax, soften and expand.

One of the easiest and most relaxing ways to help you shift from being anxious to being calmer, is to listen to a Natal Hypnotherapy album in the weeks leading up to the birth. Over 2000 midwives now recommend award-winning Natal Hypnotherapy  as they have seen how beneficial it can be for both mum and baby. Listening to one of the tracks is a great excuse to go and lie down for half an hour knowing you are doing something really practical and useful to prepare for the birth.

My voice (british accent by the way) guides you into a deeply relaxed state using breathing techniques, guided imagery and visualisation. You can get a free 15 minute track by clicking here. Once you are deeply relaxed, your conscious mind becomes quiet and you become open and receptive to positive suggestions about the birth, learning coping strategies and pain management techniques, all geared towards helping you stay calm and able to deal effectively with contractions.

Hypnobirthing track
Natal Hypnotherapy hypnobirthing

As any midwife will tell you, the secret to coping with labour is to relax and breathe. By listening to a hypnobirthing track over and over again before labour you become brilliant at relaxing and effective breathing and are mentally familiar with the processes of giving birth, which naturally increases your confidence and reduces any fear associated with birth. The hypnotherapy techniques put you in control, so that you have all the coping strategies you need for the big day, no matter who else is there to support you.

You can learn more about how to help yourself during pregnancy and birth with my top tips emails

You can also read Jennifer’s birth story on how she used this secret to coping with labour.

If you’re not sure what this hypnobirthing stuff is like then you can get this FREE pregnancy relaxation hypnobirthing track

Click to download your FREE track

Footling breech birth with Natal Hypnotherapy

You probably get loads of these emails but I wanted to share my birth experience with you and to say thank you!

In short, we didn’t have the experience we planned but my partner and I know that Natal Hypnotherapy played a very important role.

I know Natal Hypnokate peppereltherapy encourages you to distance yourself from negative birth stories so firstly I want to say that this isn’t a negative experience it just didn’t go as planned. Also, Natal Hypnotherapy works. In the height of panic I did have a thought that it was all for nothing but then my mind seemed to click into a different gear and I was able to focus and reassuring thoughts kept coming to me. I didn’t get the chance to go to my beach or think of the other visualisations I had been practising but the thoughts around trusting my body, being safe and focussed all came to the surface.

My labour started just after I had finished listening to the Effective Birth Preparation CD. My waters broke and contractions started immediately. I rang my partner who left work. I was calm and took my time getting last-minute bits ready and had a shower. My partner arrived and we set off to the midwife-led unit at our local hospital where we planned to deliver. On the journey my contractions were 2 mins apart and intense. I listened to the ‘serious-phase’ track from the Labour Companion CD on repeat.

Arriving at the hospital I was examined and was initially told that we might get sent home! I then went into the toilet where a strong urge came over me and panic set in. I called for the midwife who was able to see that our baby was breach, his toes were visible! At this point it really all went a bit haywire as the midwife-led unit needed to transfer me by ambulance to the hospital 25 minutes away. My partner wasn’t able to come in the ambulance so we were separated. My contractions were massive and all I wanted to do is push but I was being told not too. The midwife looking after us was fab, she had experience of natal hypnotherapy and although it was no longer a calm environment she took on the role of my partner, staying close to me, holding me etc. We were transferred to an ambulance and set off, blue lighting to the big hospital.Alan and Eddie pepperell (2)

5 minutes into the journey I delivered our baby weighing 8lb 9oz, feet first. In all it was 25 minute of chaos but I was able to tune out. I wasn’t quiet but I felt focussed, the ambulance actually made me feel very safe as it was small and quiet (once we had stopped). I also remember a strong feeling to trust in my body which I know was the hypnotherapy working. Also, throughout
all of this our baby’s heart rate never increased, it was perfect throughout and again I like to think that was due to the hypnotherapy. We carried on to the hospital where my partner was waiting and he met his son. We were home later that evening.

A lot of friends keep describing the birth as traumatic as a footling breech birth is so rare – especially in an ambulance!

It was definitely dramatic but I do not feel it was traumatic.

I feel proud of my body and very empowered by the whole event just like hypnotherapy prepared me for.

Although my partner wasn’t there for the birth he feels strongly that my calmness up to the point of discovering baby was breach was down to all my preparation.

I really wanted to share our story as it’s a bit different, and I realise it’s quite extreme but Natal Hypnotherapy played a significant role in keeping me calm initially and triggering empowering thoughts when I was in the midst of chaos helping me do what I needed to do.

So, thank you for this programme. I would definitely recommend it as even if birth doesn’t quite go to plan, it really doesn’t matter it will help, a lot.

Kate, Allan and Eddie Pepperell

One Born Every Minute – a dad’s journey from a traumatic birth to an inspirational birth

This blog looks at how Paul’s journey took him from coping with a traumatic birth to being an integral part of an inspirational birth.

Channel 4 OBEM
Paul and Nadine talking about their positive expereince of using Natal hypnotherapy

Having met Nadine a few times I knew how much a positive birth experience had meant to her. Especially after the difficulties she had with her first labour. However, as often happens, a father’s perspective of the birth can be somewhat overlooked.

I was therefore so pleased when Paul sent me this video. He gives his perspective of their first difficult birth experience during which he felt like during which they both felt very unprepared and somewhat overwhelmed.  Paul especially felt like a bystander and felt unable to support Nadine in effectively.

When Nadine became pregnant again, they felt so strongly that they wanted to find a different way. Initially, like many partners, Paul was somewhat skeptical about hypnotherapy and had a misguided view of what it meant. However, he goes on to explain so clearly how his view changed once he understood what Natal Hypnotherapy was all about and how much it helped him have a proactive and important role and ultimately an inspirational birth experience.

I won’t give too much away but words like motivational, inspirational, positive, uplifting were words he used to describe the second birth experience.

You can watch his interview here

You can watch Paul and Nadine’s inspirational birth experience on Channel 4’s “One Born Every Minute” at 9pm on August 12th

To learn more about what Paul and Nadine did to prepare Click to download your 5 steps poster

I would love to hear from other partners who felt the same or from mums who saw a similar change in their birth partners.

Scientific evidence that Natal Hypnotherapy keeps you relaxed during labour

I was contacted on twitter the other day by a lady who had listened to the Natal Hypnotherapy tracks as preparation for her birth. After the birth she posted this incredible image of the tracker report from her Microsoft Band which she put on at the beginning of her home birth.

heart rate of a NH mum

What we can see from this is the trace of her heart beat, expended energy and duration of labour. The most striking thing is that throughout her labour her heart rate actually went down apart from a tiny increase during the birth. Her heart rate and level of energy expenditure where high in the beginning (what we term the excitement phase) when she was probably still more active and understandably super excited that she was going to have her baby very soon.

As the labour progresses she begins to slow down her activity, relaxing deeply and only experiencing an increase in heart rate during contractions. This shows so clearly that staying calm, relaxed and focused means you expend less energy and put less strain on your heart. She burned a total of 493 calories which is the equivalent of playing golf for an hour and a half – a far cry from the Google stimate of an average labouring women burning 50,000 calories!

The reason hypnotherapy works so well in labour is that
a) mums-to-be condition their bodies to relax so they can “actively” relax muscles on command for example when a contraction begins
b) they have practised deep breathing techniques which help the flow of oxygen to the uterus making it easier for the muscles to work effectively
c) they have over come any fears or worries so that they have little or no adrenaline which can cause tension in muscles.
d) They completely trust their bodies to know exactly what to do and so are not “fighting” the labour in any way.

If you are interested in learning more about things you can do to stay calm, relaxed and focused during labour download this informative poster.

“This is the third birth during which I have used your Natal Hypnotherapy and all my birth experiences, while all vastly different, were amazing, empowering and life-defining.

Paul had given me the Microsoft band for my birthday a week earlier and we had talked about using it during labour then. This was also related to an article I read about the lack of female input on technology development in Silicon Valley. While the Microsoft band is fully kitted out to support a round of golf- there aren’t any functions related to pregnancy, childbirth or postpartum experiences like breastfeeding for example.

So I wanted to record my labour and share it with Microsoft in the hope it would catch an eye and perhaps other people would use their bands to do the same. Obviously, my data is pointless without other data to compare it to.

Wouldn’t it be amazing if a woman, not using Natal Hypnotherapy (or similar) recorded her labour experience? I wonder if her heart rate would spike higher, or build over time (as opposed to mine). If the data would show how much ‘harder’ labour is physically if you are fearful or even the body’s response to the use of other forms of pain relief?

Relaxed mum Jen

So, I would love to get the word out and encourage other women to record their experiences and perhaps, even to influence the Microsoft Band’s development.”

 

Would you consider using a band like this to monitor your physical responses during labour? I would love to know if you used anything like this and what the reading was.

You can also get info on all my latest blogs, videos, webinars etc by signing up and getting my 5 steps to a better birth poster.

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