Make oxytocin your friend in labour

Every woman knows…and every man would probably agree…that your body is governed by hormones. Having a baby is no different. In fact when you’re in labour and whilst you’re giving birth, your hormones are the most important thing on the planet.  Before you consider where to have your baby, who’s going to be your birth partner and even if you’re planning a caesarean you should be considering what part your hormones are going to play in all this.

  • The chemicals released by your brain influence your body in labour.
  • They can speed it up or slow it down.
  • They can make it hurt more or hurt less.

It’s that simple.

Of course the position of your baby and the things that are done to you in labour can also influence how you give birth, but that’s for another blog.  We’re talking about the power behind your body.

oxytocin collageThere are three chemicals released by your brain that have important parts to play in the process of labour and birth.

1.            OXYTOCIN – Otherwise known as the “Hormone of Love”.  Oxytocin is released when you have an orgasm. It causes the uterus to contract rapidly to collect the sperm deposited ready for making a new life.  It’s released during the “let-down” reflex when you breastfeed your baby.  It makes men want to protect their women. The surge of oxytocin after you give birth makes new mothers want to nurture and protect their babies.  And last but not least an oxytocin makes you feel good. That’s what makes Orgasmic Birth possible.  In labour it’s what makes your uterus contract.  Produce lots of oxytocin and you’ll labour quickly and effectively.

2.            ENDORPHINS – Ever wondered why women at the end of pregnancy get a bit forgetful, sleepy, and not quite on the ball as they used to be?  Well that’s endorphins.  Your level of endorphins – your body’s natural painkillers – increases steadily towards the end of your pregnancy.  It’s getting you ready for the birth. During the labour they are fabulous.  Endorphins, when they’re flowing well, help you lose track of time and take you off to another planet.  Our bodies are made for birth. Endorphins steadily increase during the labour, parallel to the increase of oxytocin.  As your body works harder to birth your baby, so your natural painkillers step in to enable you to cope.

3.            ADRENALINE – This hormone has a protective role to play in labour.  Remember learning about “fight or flight” at school?  This is it.  When your body starts feeling the fear, then the adrenaline kicks in. The idea behind it is that if you’re afraid of something, it’s probably not safe to give birth. It’s as if your body thinks there’s a predator coming to get you. Unfortunately adrenaline has the unwanted side-effect of slowing down your oxytocin production.

This means that contractions slow down or even stop.

It also stops your endorphins from having their pain-killing effect. This means it all starts to hurt more. Many midwives will have seen women come in to their birth unit from home, feeling they were in the throes of labour, only for it to stop when they reach the hospital.

Their body has started pumping adrenaline round, the journey, the change of environment, a big scary looking hospital where you don’t know anyone; all these components can induce a fight or flight reaction. So labour stops.  If home is not for you, then the next best thing would be to visit the unit before the birth, and for the midwives to allow you a little time to settle into your room before deciding whether labour really has stopped. A little time to relax into your surroundings and it will probably all start off again.

In a nutshell then, there are two hormones that help you birth easier, and one hormone that can slow the whole process down.  Understanding the importance of oxytocin and endorphins is the key to an effective birth. This is how it applies to a physiological or natural birth, but they are key hormones for our transition into motherhood, bonding, breastfeeding and so much more. However you birth, home or caesarean these hormones are vital.

How Do I Help these Hormones to Flow?

There follows an example of how oxytocin can be helped or hindered. Picture yourself in bed with your partner. It’s dark. You’re alone together. You’re warm and naked. You’re feeling a little.. well, sexy. You feel like you want to make lurve. Imagine a Barry White voice at this point.  Sounds good? Hormones are probably flowing at this point. Now imagine that you’ve been swiftly moved to a clinical white room.  Walls are a bit thin, so you have people on the other side and in the corridor. There’s a bed in the middle of the room. You’re naked with your partner, but there are several people in white coats who you have never met before monitoring your blood pressure, pulse and temperature. You can hear voices outside. You’ve now been told

“Please go ahead and make love. We’ll be keeping an eye on you. Oh, and by the way, you’ve got 10 minutes to have an orgasm.”

Now, that could be your thing, but most people would probably have a little difficulty in relaxing and enjoying the moment. The orgasm is probably not going to happen.  If you think that sounds crazy, well that’s what happens in hospitals around the world. Not the orgasms; the interruption in the birth process! The pregnant woman who is monitored and watched and taken into a clinical room in her labour is under the same pressure and far from ideal birth conditions. Basically, the hormones that govern orgasm are exactly the same hormones that help us give birth.  It’s so simple.

The ideal environment to have an orgasm is somewhere you feel safe and warm, completely relaxed and uninhibited.  You don’t want to feel that you’re being watched. The darkness helps too.

Now swap the word “orgasm” with “baby”.

Giving birth needs the right environment to protect the flow of your birth hormones.   Having your baby at home is probably the best place for those hormones to flow well, but for some women and babies this not appropriate. Most births I have attended have been in a hospital environment, either a birth centre or delivery suite.  Given the right circumstances, midwives can protect the birth environment, and wow I have been privileged to attend loads of oxytocin filled birth rooms in hospital.

Our body is made for birth, let’s do all we can to believe, learn and protect it.

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