Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that plays a significant role in birth, breastfeeding and sex amongst other human behaviours. It is often referred to as the ‘love hormone’, as human touch and affection raises the levels of oxytocin in our blood stream. You know that tingly sensation you get that feels like warmth spreading around your body? That’s associated with oxytocin! Higher levels of oxytocin are linked with feeling calm, safe, secure and comfortable. It is also responsible for attachment between infants and their parents.
Oxytocin has the power to ‘expel’ things from the body. It acts on the uterus, making it contract in order to push the baby out. During labour, oxytocin is released in pulses from the hypothalamus, deep in the centre of the brain. These pulses of the hormone are what stimulate contractions throughout labour that come and go every few minutes in a rhythmic pattern.
Oxytocin is easily influenced by anxiety, tension and fear, as these are associated with a surge in stress hormones, which halt the release of oxytocin. Stress hormones, predominantly adrenaline, are what trigger the ‘fight or flight’ response in humans. This dates back thousands of years and is a primitive response to a perceived threat (eg. imagine the caveman out hunting who comes face to face with a sabre toothed tiger). For this reason, it is important to create an environment during labour that helps the labouring individual to feel as calm, relaxed and safe as possible to prevent stimulating the release of stress hormones that might slow down or completely stall the natural progress of labour.
Oxytocin acts on the breasts to allow milk to be released when a baby is feeding.
Baby suckles → nerve impulses travel from breast to brain → oxytocin released into bloodstream → oxytocin reaches muscle cells that lie next to milk-producing cells → cells contract and squeeze out milk
As the baby continues to feed the feedback loop is completed. Immediately after birth, when a baby is skin-to-skin with its mother and starts to breastfeed, this increases oxytocin levels further and helps to expel the placenta.
The body learns this reflex action, and that is why sometimes a mother will leak milk when she sees her baby or hears them cry. Breastfeeding releases oxytocin in both you and the baby.
Orgasm, Sex and Labour
When we orgasm a flood of oxytocin is released into the bloodstream. It is possible that oxytocin is responsible for the muscle activity related to orgasm in both women and men. Studies have shown that women release higher levels of oxytocin than men during orgasm. If you think about the fact that these bodily functions are controlled by the same hormone (oxytocin) you start to see the similarities between birth and sex. Imagine a scenario of sexual intimacy: it is unlikely that you would be able to orgasm in front of a room full of people, in an environment you are unfamiliar, with bright lights shining on you (it would appear I have just described the set of a shit porno…) Birth follows the same rules. Women generally have uncomplicated labours when disturbed as little as possible. Support is important, but support from people who are trusted and have faith in the woman’s ability to birth her baby.
As I have discussed before, the release of oxytocin at orgasm can also stimulate uterine contractions. To be clear: it is not dangerous to orgasm when pregnant! No studies have found that orgasm will cause a baby to come prematurely. But if your body is already in the process of preparing to go into labour it may help to stimulate the process. The other reason you may hear that sex (specifically penetration with a penis) can bring on labour is because male ejaculate contains prostaglandins. These are natural hormones, which are also released by the cervix and help it to soften and open at the beginning of labour. (Again, this will only get things going if you are ‘term’ i.e. 37+ weeks pregnant). And one more thing to bring this full circle… a fantastic way of stimulating contractions in labour is nipple stimulation. And why might this be? For those at the back, RELEASE OF OXYTOCIN! Just as the baby stimulates oxytocin when they breastfeed.
“When we realise that pregnancy and birth are not primarily medical conditions, but part of a woman’s psychosexual experience, we discover the relations between different aspects of our sexuality and gain new understanding, in touch with our bodies and our feelings.” Sheila Kitzinger
Effects and benefits of Oxytocin:
- Anxiety reducing
- Lowers blood pressure and pulse
- Reduces levels of stress hormones
- Increases tolerance to pain
- Promotes learning and feeling calm
- Improves digestion and nutrition storage
These are the effects of oxytocin that can be experienced when enjoying food, being massaged, having sex or intimacy such as kissing and cuddling, but also IN LABOUR! We can directly see how the facilitation of oxytocin to work its magic can help with the intensity of labour. So how can we help oxytocin out?
How to aid release of oxytocin in labour
There are two key ways to help oxytocin do its job:
- By developing an understanding of the process of labour: through knowledge comes power. If you haven’t had a baby before (and even if you have) you cannot know exactly how you will feel in labour and the ways it may affect you, but if you have an awareness of how labour progresses you will hopefully feel less fearful. Less fear -> more oxytocin!
- Creating an environment that fosters safety, security and comfort. This includes the people you have with you and your physical surroundings. I always think of a cat going off to find a quiet, dark, warm and undisturbed corner to have her kittens. We are mammals too after all!
I could talk all day about the wonders of oxytocin, and I have merely planted the seed for how you might go about creating the right birthing environment… to be continued.
The Oxytocin Factor – Kerstin Uvnäs-Moberg
Birth & Sex – Sheila Kitzinger