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.

Best Christmas ever – a peaceful birth under the xmas tree!

Using hypnosis for pain management
Using hypnosis to anesthetize arm

With Christmas around the corner, I thought I would focus on lovely Christmas birth stories.  Here George tells of her journey using and developing her Natal Hypnotherapy skills to help her have the best Christmas ever! After listening to the Natal Hypnotherapy tracks and attending a weekend course, she wrote her own script to really personalise her birth preparation.

“Having used hypnotherapy and self-hypnosis for a number of years and experienced the sometimes life-changing results (including sticking a nappy pin through my arm!), it wasn’t a question of if I would use it during my pregnancy and the birth of Danuta, but rather how I could use it.  Not only had I never given birth before but we also had our hearts set on a home birth, which if we were to listen too carefully to conventional current medical opinion, was a crazy plan fraught with issues – what if it goes wrong?  You will only have gas and air – what if you need an epidural/c-section – think about the transfer times to hospital – you don’t know your own body, being a first-timer – you are putting yourself and your baby at great risk – what you are considering is very selfish.  All of these words had come from my doctor and pretty much every mainstream birthing text-book backed her up.  Any basic birthing instinct to bring your baby into this world in a safe, comfortable and loving environment is dangerous and selfish.  And she’s a doctor, so she must be right…

In my experience, a Natal Hypnotherapy approach turns the whole what-if-it-goes-wrong starting point on its head and focuses instead on the perfect and unique birthing experience for the individual woman or couple.  If you dare to allow yourself to visualise it, what factors would feature in your perfect birthing experience?  For me, Christmas is a very special time of year that holds with it feelings of childhood excitement and happiness – just the smell of a mince-pie or the sound of carols being sung makes me glow inside, so the fact that our baby was due around this time had all the makings of the best Christmas ever.

Throughout my pregnancy I had spent time listening to a Natal hypnotherapy relaxation tracks (you can get a free download by clicking here) which, whilst increasing my bond with our growing baby inside, also helped me tune into my natural instincts as a mother-to-be.  In the third trimester Adam and I attended a Natal Hypnotherapy weekend and this is when we really began to focus our minds on the actual birth and the writing of our own birthing programme.  Using emotive language that was very specific to our own personalities we developed a script that described the perfect birthing experience – how we would feel, how we would react to certain phases or situations, images, sounds and smells that would trigger positive emotional responses.  For example:

The sounds of the music, which are now familiar to me, reinforce my natural feelings of relaxation and calm, allowing me to fall deeper and deeper into a comfortable, peaceful feeling of complete relaxation…

an extract from the birthing programme – earlier stages of labour

…with each contraction I visualise my cervix softening and opening slowly softening and opening gently, smoothly and easily…

george adam and danuta after birth
The best Christmas ever

an extract from the birthing programme – final stages of labour

I would read the birthing programme often, really soaking up the words that meant so much to us and once in a relaxed state of self-hypnosis I would then recall these words, images and feelings to the sounds of music that would accompany us in the birthing experience.  The more often I listened, the deeper into my subconscious these associations were going.  The Christmas tree bauble I knew so well, the stocking hung by the fireplace ready for baby’s presents, the smell of Christmas spices – all of these factors meant excitement, comfort, happiness and deeper and deeper confidence to birth our baby safely and naturally.

The due date came and went and as the days ticked by, talk was turning to induction – this is when I felt my most sacred.  Not because of the dangers of letting me go over, but because I just felt baby wasn’t ready yet and that he or she would decide when it was time to meet us.  Things were happening – we’d had a show and, having had contractions for 2 weeks now, I was already 3 cms dilated.  14 days after her official due date and on the day we were due to go into hospital, baby Danuta decided it was time to join us and she wasn’t hanging about either.

George and Danuta
George and Danuta

The experience certainly wasn’t without pain and there was no time for birthing music CDs or Christmas spice oils, but I wouldn’t change a single moment.   Focusing on each contraction took me deep down into the experience and during the later stages the visualisation of my cervix softening and opening was intensely powerful and effective.  Adam was fully involved at all times and helped communicate my feelings to the midwife during contractions as well as somehow knowing what to say at right time.  We birthed our daughter in our front room next to the Christmas tree and in front of the open fire and Christmas stockings – four and a half hours after waking with strong contractions I was holding Danuta in my arms, crying at the beauty of our perfect baby girl who truly made this the best Christmas ever!

With the support and confidence of an amazing partner, an experienced and trusted doula and our very special birthing programme, I was never in any doubt we were doing the right thing.  I was frightened then angered by the words of my doctor, I was upset by the reaction of some friends, but I never once doubted my instincts to birth Danuta at home using hypnosis.  I can’t wait to give her a brother or sister.”

A wonderful story of a couple taking their birth preparation into their own hands for the best christmas ever!
Click to download your FREE track

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.

Make use of your senses to prepare for birth

When I got out of the shower this morning and put a newly washed towel to my face, the smell of the towel suddenly took me back to my grandmother’s bathroom. Bizzarely, I have not thought about her bathroom for years! As I stood there remenisicng for a few moments, it reminded me of just how powerful our sense of smell is as a trigger for memories and emotions.
So when preparing for birth you can actively start to create these triggers by using all your senses in the lead up to the birth which will give you a heard start to staying calm relaxed and focused.

 

1.   Smell – start burring oils like lavender or rose when you are relaxing in the later stages of pregnancy.  This works especially well when listening to your hypnosis recordings.  By doing this at least 7 times in the weeks leading up to the birth, your mind will automatically make the association of the smell and your physiological and mental state of relaxation. In addition familiar smells increase the production of the fabulous birthing hormone Oxytocin.

 

2.     Sound – I once supported a lady in labour whose hobby was glass ringing (when you run your finger around a glass and it makes a humming sound).  She found the sound incredibly soothing and relaxing in general life.  When in labour her husband just had to run his finger around the glass once and you could visibly see her body completely relax – no one said anything or even touched her – just the sound sent her into deep relaxation. Find some music that you really enjoy that relaxes you and again play that during your pregnancy when you are actively relaxing. If you are using Natal Hypnotherapy then make sure you have the Relaxing Birth Music (the background music) to play during the birth

 

3.   Touch – so many of us instantly relax when we feel someone’s hands begin to massage our shoulder or when we have a bear hug with a loved one. Touch can feel so safe and reassuring.  You can practice this by asking your partner to place his hand on your shoulder when you are relaxing in the bath or at times when you are listening to your MP3.  Again you will begin to associate the touch with the physiology of relaxing.

 

4.     Visual – Isn’t it amazing how looking at an old photo of your wedding or a holiday can immediately bring about feelings and memories?  Again you can use this trigger by putting up photos around you of places and times that made you feel really happy and relaxed.  Keep these with you so you can use them as a visual trigger to help you relax and refocus.  You can even bring in objects like a babygrow as a reminder of what you are working towards.

 

5.   Taste – this is not such an obvious one but you can still use this sense to help you stay calm and focused.  In the lead up to the birth have a glass of a favourite drink.  As you take a few sips, close your eyes, breathe deeply and really enjoy the taste in your mouth. Relax your shoulders and being to imagine being somewhere really wonderful, really relaxing.  Then take another sip and make the feelings and images even brighter, even stronger.  Do this every time you are about practice your hypnosis.  The taste will soon become another trigger for relaxation and calm.  Then during labour when you have a few sips of the same drink go through the same exercise and the relaxation and calm will automatically follow.