Oxytocin. The vital role of this wonder hormone
Oxytocin is the star of the show when it comes to labour. In fact, I think it may be the greatest hormone in the land. Understanding how to help your body produce oxytocin during labour is more important than deciding what should go in your birth plan or your birth bag… it’s more important than anything at all! Here I’ll be explaining why, and how you can make sure oxytocin is flowing for you.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a hormone produced by the hypothalamus and secreted by the pituitary gland. The name is derived from the Greek; ‘oxus’ and ‘toxkos’, meaning quick childbirth. It’s known as the hormone of ‘love’, ‘calm’, some people call it the ‘cuddle’ hormone, others the ‘shy’ hormone. It makes you feel relaxed, intimate and empathetic. It also makes your uterus work during labour, the fuel for your muscles.
If you are induced, you may be put on a syntocinon drip. That’s synthetic oxytocin. I experienced this during my first labour; the effect is extraordinary. It ramped up my contractions (aka ‘surges’ in Hypnobirthing) from 0-100mph in no time at all. It was all I could do to try and catch up with what was happening in my body… it was full on.
But our body produces oxytocin naturally. To understand how it works in action, lets take you as an example. You meet the person who is now your partner. You laugh, share secrets, become intimate and fall in love. These are heady days and your body is awash with oxytocin. When you make love, it comes in rolling waves. You become pregnant and your body changes in visible and invisible ways. Your oxytocin levels rise during the end of your pregnancy and you may start to experience ‘braxton hicks’; triggered by oxytocin, these practice surges for labour strengthen the uterus muscles in preparation.
Now your baby is ready to be born. The oxytocin receptors in your body (found in your cervix, vagina, nipples and elsewhere) are activated when your progesterone levels fall and oestrogen levels rise. Your baby is dropping lower into your cervix and this sends a signal up your spine to the pituitary gland to release more oxytocin.
Birth has begun. Nature is clever, putting your production of oxytocin on a loop. Its’ release stimulates your uterus muscles to work, the muscle fibres thickening and pulling up, releasing the circular muscles of your cervix below. As your labour progresses, the surges in your uterus send signals to your brain to produce more oxytocin. Oxytocin makes your muscles work, and your muscles working make more oxytocin. When your body can get on with what it’s designed to do, your labour continues smoothly and efficiently. As your baby is born, you will experience an incredible tidal wave of oxytocin - helping you bond with your baby and with breastfeeding.
What gets in the way of oxytocin flowing?
Anxiety and stress get in the way of oxytocin. This can mean that labour might not start naturally (as I found with my first) or that labour is more challenging. It’s not helpful to feel fearful about birth, or worried about your ability to cope with it.
Your survival instinct also plays an important role. As a labouring mother, you are on high alert for potential risks to you or your baby. You are more sensitive to anything that might be a threat, even if it’s just a grumpy taxi driver on the way to the hospital. A possible threat will trigger your fear, fight or flight response, sending a signal to your body to produce adrenalin, which will inhibit the process of labour by stopping the production of oxytocin.
It is very likely that something might happen during labour to jolt your body into producing adrenalin. If it’s not a grumpy taxi driver, it could be talk of induction, a midwife saying ‘you’re ONLY 3 cm dilated’ or too much noise. It could even be your husband revealing to you, mid-labour, that two days ago he’d put the sterilised birth pool liner in the garden thinking it was a disused shower curtain. Unlikely you may think, but that indeed is what happened to us.
Acknowledging the likelihood of labour being interrupted means that you can prepare yourself so that you know how to react in the best possible way. You and your partner are fully able to get the production of oxytocin back on track.
How you can help oxytocin flow freely
You want to head into labour feeling strong, resourceful, happy to be about to meet your baby, ready for birth. You can do some very practical things in pregnancy to let go of worries and get oxytocin flowing for labour:
- Tune into positive birth stories, seek them out online or amongst friends. Tune out the negative ones. They are NOT helpful, no matter what the person telling you might think
- Practice Hypnobirthing relaxations, especially in the evenings to send you off into a restful and restorative sleep. These will build your confidence in your ability to give birth and will teach your mind and body how to sink into wonderful deep relaxation
- Practice Hypnobirthing breathing techniques and visualisations so that your mind and body know how to work together during labour
- Shake off any pressures you have about doing things the ‘right’ or ‘perfect’ way. There’s no such thing. This is about being kind and compassionate to yourself. You wouldn’t tell your friend that they won’t be able to cope with birth or that they’re bound to fail, would you? Don’t say it to yourself either. If you find yourself heading down this thought track, try this:
- Give yourself some new stimulus. Think of yourself doing something you’re great at, being strong, confident, resourceful. Writing down some examples and noticing them each day is helpful.
- Or, jump off the self-destructive track with a distraction. Make a tea, listen to the radio, read, psychologists tell us 2 mins is enough to drag your mind away from your worries. If they come back, distract yourself again until it becomes a habit!
- Ultimately, don’t bury persistent worries, they will come back 10 times bigger and hairier. Let them out, write them down, take away their power by acknowledging them and then focusing on letting them go. How? See above!
For oxytocin to flow freely, it needs the same sort of environment that you’d create to make love in. Low lights, no one else around, peace and quiet. That’s why some call it the ‘shy’ hormone.
When you’re in that space, you’re more easily able to go into your own birthing bubble, your rational brain in standby mode. In this zone, it’s as if you are ‘stepping aside to let your body give birth’ as one of my new Hypnobirthing Place mums said of her own birth.
Surrender control and trust the process, with the following to help:
- Turn the lights down low, have battery powered fairy lights or candles at home
- Use an eye mask or scarf for the transfer to hospital, to help block out light and the presence of others
- Play relaxing music to create white noise and block out other sounds
- Use a calming room spray to relax you (ideally the same one you’ve used for your hypnobirthing practice) – you can have this at home, in the taxi, birth centre or labour ward.
- Keep your breathing deep, oxygen flowing, your heart rate steady, breath through birth, not away from it - your surges will be more comfortable like this
- Stay warm to inhibit the production of adrenalin
- Light touch massage and pressure helps increase oxytocin and endorphins (making labour more comfortable)
- Be where you feel safe. For some, this is home, for others the birth centre or labour ward.
- Laugh! I had to laugh at my husband’s madness – it was that or thump him. A funny DVD is also a good option. Laughter produces oxytocin.
- Kissing and cuddling. Let love bring your baby out!
During my pregnancy with Iris and her birth, I used everything above. She was born at home after 5 hours. I’m not saying it wasn’t partly down to luck, to the wonderful midwives or to the fact she was my second baby. It was all those things, but it was also unarguably down to Hypnobirthing. The environment we created, my husband's role (not counting the pool liner), my mind-set, my body relaxing and opening smoothly and gently, and of course our indomitable Iris. Oxytocin flowed freely. So very different to my first, in which adrenalin ruled.
A hormone that brings life into the world, that lives and breathes with love and laughter and happiness.
See, oxytocin really is the greatest.