What could be more fitting around Valentine’s Day than to address oxytocin, nicknamed the love hormone? While oxytocin is released during times of intimacy, it also plays a vital role in labor, birth, and postpartum.
What is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin, a hormone produced in the pituitary gland, is often referred to as the love hormone because it is released during times of bonding and partaking in intimate acts such as snuggling, sex, and labor. When we hug or kiss a loved one, oxytocin is being produced. In labor, oxytocin is responsible for the uterine contractions. As labor progresses, the pressure of the baby's head on the cervix and then the pelvic floor stimulates more oxytocin to be released, causing contractions to become stronger, more regular, and closer together. In a spontaneous labor where this process is able to take place unhindered, the mother's body is able to regulate the level of oxytocin production allowing for built in rest periods between contractions for the mother and baby.
In addition to stimulating uterine contractions during labor, oxytocin does the same for women after birth. These contractions assist in the birth of the placenta and the shrinking of the uterus back to its normal size, helping to reduce the amount of bleeding postpartum. Mothers are often encouraged to take advantage of the golden hour following birth by practicing skin to skin contact and nursing as soon as baby is ready. The skin to skin contact and breastfeeding encourage the production of oxytocin to facilitate uterine contractions that will expedite third stage, but also promote healthy bonding between mother and baby.
Pitocin vs. Oxytocin
Pitocin, a synthetic form of oxytocin, is often given to mothers to induce or augment labor. While Pitocin is made to mimic the hormone oxytocin, it is not manufactured or regulated by the laboring mother’s brain, and therefore cannot act in exactly the same way naturally produced oxytocin does. For example, when oxytocin is secreted by the mother’s brain, her body is able to regulate how much is needed and provide rest periods between contractions. When Pitocin is used, it is administered continuously through an IV overriding the body’s production of the hormone. This often results in contractions that are too strong, too close together, and have a longer duration than what the mother’s body would experience naturally. As a result, the baby may experience undue stress, which can lead to a cascade of interventions.
Furthermore, when labor is able to happen spontaneously, the pressure of the baby's head on the mother's cervix stimulates oxytocin production, triggering contractions that result in effacement and dilation of the cervix. When used to induce labor, Pitocin may jump start a process that neither the mother’s body nor the baby are ready for, potentially resulting in a harder, longer labor than what nature intended.
Labors that are induced or augmented by Pitocin and lacking in the natural production of oxytocin interrupt the orchestra of hormones that takes place in a laboring woman’s body. By inhibiting the brain’s manufacturing of oxytocin, the production of endorphins is also overridden, robbing the mother of the hormones that provide natural pain relief.
Lastly, when oxytocin is able to be produced naturally, it peaks before birth, allowing a surge of the love hormone to facilitate a quicker, easier birth and promoting bonding with the baby immediately afterwards. Though it is still possible to bond with the baby when Pitocin is used through skin to skin and breastfeeding, the birthing mother still misses out on this peak of oxytocin regulated by the brain just before the birth.
While we are thankful for medical interventions when the benefits outweigh the risk and the interventions are necessary for the health of mom and baby, it is important to remember the benefits of naturally produced oxytocin in labor and birth for low-risk, healthy mothers and babies.
How to Promote Oxytocin in Labor and Birth
How, then, can we promote the natural production and regulation of oxytocin for the laboring mother? Many mothers have found it helpful to take a birth education class, such as The Bradley Method®, in which mothers and their partners are empowered through understanding the natural process of birth and equipped with various non-pharmacological pain management techniques. One of the unique aspects of The Bradley Method® is the focus on training the mother’s partner to be her labor support. When a mother feels safe, supported, and loved during labor and birth, her mind and body are able to relax, allowing her body to take over and do what it needs to do to birth her baby. Spontaneous labor, as mentioned above, is a great way to allow for the natural production of oxytocin and its accompanying labor hormones.
Other mothers have found the following to be helpful in labor:
Labor at home as long as possible where mom feels safe and comfortable in her own environment
Ensure that mom has surrounded herself with a supportive and encouraging birth team (may include birth attendant, doula, partner, etc.)
Create a home-like atmosphere if birthing in a hospital (low lighting with items like LED candles or Christmas lights, aromatherapy, wearing her own clothing, music, etc.)
Choose a birth place where mom will feel safe, respected, and supported
Keep visitors and interruptions to a minimum whenever possible
Physical touch from a loved one (kissing, nipple stimulation, embracing, massage, etc.)
So on this Valentine’s Day, let’s celebrate the love hormone and its importance in the birth process and bonding during postpartum.