Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that is released when we feel happy, secure and loved. It is integral to childbirth, helping create powerful contractions or surges that help us birth effectively. It helps stimulate the flow of breastmilk, and is essential for bonding. It can be triggered by massage, laughter and skin-to-skin contact (to name a few).
What is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is a pretty fantastic neurotransmitter and hormone. It’s produced in the hypothalamus and then released by the pituitary gland in your brain. It is often called the ‘love hormone’ because it is involved in social interaction, bonding, love and trust. It also plays a big part in sex, childbirth and breastfeeding.
The love hormone: sex
Whilst women have higher levels of Oxytocin, both men and women experience the release of Oxytocin during sex. It’s released at the arousal as well as the climax stage of intimacy and intercourse.
Midwives will often tell you ‘what got the baby in will help get the baby out’, what they mean is that when you orgasm, it releases Oxytocin and can make your womb contract. Not only that, if your partner is male, sperm contains high levels of prostaglandins. Prostaglandins are the hormone your body releases to help soften the cervix (don’t use a condom of course!) Both these things may help start your labour, when your pregnancy reaches full term. It’s important to note that this will only work if your body is ready for labour.
Nipple stimulation can also release Oxytocin, with the same effect, but fewer women reach orgasm through nipple stimulation. Again, this may be why your midwife recommends expressing colostrum after 37 weeks in pregnancy to encourage the start of labour.
Oxytocin and birth
Oxytocin is the hormone which helps you labour effectively. It shapes your contractions’ frequency, length, and strength and is released when you feel calm, relaxed and safe. Early contractions help your cervix dilate and thin out so that your baby can pass down into the birth canal. Then as your labour progresses, each contraction helps move your baby down the birth canal. So, the more Oxytocin, the better your contractions, and hopefully, the more quickly your baby arrives.
If you feel stressed or anxious during labour, your body will produce hormones such as adrenaline. Adrenaline suppresses the flow of Oxytocin, slowing your contractions and the first stage of labour down and reducing the flow of blood carrying oxygen to your baby.
This is why it’s so important to find relaxation techniques that work for you. Which techniques boost your Oxytocin levels and make you feel calm and safe? It may take a little trial and error to start with, then lots of practice during pregnancy to make them really effective. There are lots of different options to explore, including but not limited to:
- Meditation, such as mindfulness
- Yoga and breathing exercises
- Positive affirmations or mantras
Our Pregnancy Wellbeing Toolkit is a great place to explore some of these techniques.
Antenatal classes can really help too. They are a great place to have your questions answered, build your knowledge and reduce the fear of the unknown. This knowledge also enables you to prepare and make choices that best suit your needs and support your emotional wellbeing. Not only that, they give you a professional and social support network that will prove incredibly helpful in the run-up to your baby’s arrival.
After your baby is born, Oxytocin helps your placenta and membranes separate from the wall of your womb and your uterus contract so that postpartum bleeding is reduced. There are two ways to deliver the placenta: active management with uterotonic drugs or maternal effort.
NICE guidelines (2014) recommend that women have active management of the third stage of labour because it’s associated with a lower risk of postpartum haemorrhage and/or blood transfusion. In some cases, your midwife or doctor will recommend this as the best option for you – for example, if you have twins or are at a higher risk of bleeding.
In this case, the umbilical cord would be clamped and cut before you are given an injection of synthetic Oxytocin. This helps your placenta come away from the womb wall, and your uterus clamp down effectively. Your midwife will then help deliver your placenta by pulling on the umbilical cord.
- It takes 5-10 minutes for your placenta to be delivered
- There is a reduced risk of postpartum haemorrhage (losing more than 1,000ml of blood). This is 13:1,000 cases instead of 29:1,000 cases if you have a physiological third stage.
- The risk of needing a blood transfusion is 14:1,000 cases instead of 40:1,000 cases if you have a physiological third stage.
- You are twice as likely to feel nauseous or be sick. 100: 1,000 cases instead of 50:1,000 cases if you have a physiological third stage.
You may choose to have a physiological third stage if your labour has been uncomplicated and straightforward. For example, if you gave birth in a midwife-led unit, in water. Instead of having the uterotonic drug to help your placenta detach from your uterus, you will wait until the placenta comes away from the wall of your womb and your uterus clamps down naturally. This takes a little longer than a managed third stage – up to one hour, and you will need to push your placenta out when you feel the contraction of your womb starting again.
You don’t need to cut the umbilical cord before delivering your placenta via a physiological third stage unless you want to or there is a practical reason to do so – for example, if you are climbing out of the pool or the cord is very short.
Your midwife will recommend switching to active management of the third stage if it takes longer than an hour to deliver your placenta naturally or you start to bleed more heavily.
Induction of labour
A synthetic version of Oxytocin, called syntocinon, is sometimes used to help women during labour. For example, during an induction or if labour slows down and using active birth positions or breaking your waters hasn’t helped encourage regular and powerful contractions. The synthetic version of Oxytocin plays the same role in helping create strong contractions helping progress your labour. It will be administered via a drip. The dose is adjusted until the pattern of your contractions is similar to what happens naturally in labour.
Your baby’s heartbeat will be continuously monitored if you use syntocinon via a CTG (cardiotocograph) to ensure that the sintocinon is not overstimulating your womb. Artificially induced contractions can quickly become very strong and frequent, which means women often ask for pain relief, such as epidurals, to help them cope. This is also a great time to turn to the other coping strategies you’ve practiced during pregnancy, including:
- Breathing techniques
- Positive affirmations and visualisations
- Hypnobirthing techniques
Your birth partner can also support you:
- By helping you into comfortable birth positions
- With massage and loving touch
- Lots of positive encouragement
Oxytocin and breastfeeding
Oxytocin stimulates the let-down of your milk and helps with breastfeeding. Oxytocin stimulation becomes a reflex that kicks in with certain feelings and sensations, such as touching, smelling, seeing your baby, or hearing them cry. This is why you may leak milk if you hear your baby cry and also why having an item of your baby’s clothing can help when you are expressing milk away from your child.
As in labour, if you’re stressed or upset when you’re breastfeeding, it can inhibit the release of Oxytocin, and your milk may suddenly stop flowing. Good breastfeeding support is so essential in helping a new mum feel comfortable and relaxed, so her baby can feed more efficiently. Oxytocin doesn’t impact how much milk you make – that is controlled by a hormone called prolactin.
Bonding with your baby starts well before they arrive. The hormones your body produces in pregnancy play a big part in this. As you get closer to your due date, your body starts making higher levels of Oxytocin. There are lots of ways to bond with your baby in pregnancy, for example:
- Singing and talking to your baby*
- Massaging your bump*
- Paying attention to your baby’s movements and responding to them with a gentle poke or rub*
- Take some time to focus on your bump either by meditation or yoga
*Partners can get involved in this aspect of pregnancy bonding too! It will help them bond both with baby and you.
Touch is one of the most powerful ways to stimulate the release of Oxytocin, which is why skin-to-skin contact is so crucial for new parents and their babies. The oxytocin rush promotes bonding between you and your baby, calming your baby and significantly reducing their stress levels – especially after birth. But skin-to-skin can be used any time your baby is fractious in the early months at home. It’s also used in neonatal intensive care units (NICU). Research shows it can reduce infections and soothe babies, encouraging breastfeeding and the easy digestion of milk.
So, all in all, Oxytocin is a pretty fantastic hormone! Start thinking now about what will help you get the Oxytocin flowing in your pregnancy, labour or those early days with your baby.
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