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Oxytocin: The hormone of love and birth

Oxytocin: The Hormone of Love

Love has long been the domain of poets, artists and philosophers, but it's only in the past 50 years that it has really begun to hold the attention of scientists. What they are discovering is startling. Oxytocin, now dubbed the "hormone of love", holds immense sway over the way we feel when we make love, how we give birth, how successful we are at breastfeeding and how we connect to our newborn babies.

Even Jamie Oliver, cook extraordinaire, has reason to contribute to the flow of this amazing hormone, because eating a meal with friends also triggers the release of oxytocin. Having dinner with someone, after all, is more than being fed, it's a way to establish links with our companions. This gives business lunches a whole new therapeutic meaning!

Oxytocin: the facts

Oxytocin is released from the posterior pituitary gland located in the brain. Both women and men release it during lovemaking. Oxytocin also triggers and regulates contractions during labour and birth and enables milk to be let down and ejected during breastfeeding. After the birth the level of oxytocin can be higher than during labour. This is protective because it makes sure the uterus squeezes down, stopping bleeding after birth and expelling the placenta and membranes. It also helps connect us to our beautiful, wide-eyed babies.

Of all the hormones in the body, oxytocin probably gives us the greatest happiness in life. The prototype for the effect of this "hormone of love" has to be the amazing love a mother has for her baby. Oxytocin may in fact be an important influence on who we become later in life. Messing with it could be messing with the very blueprint of life!

The bad news

Oxytocin is under threat in our society and with this threat come serious consequences. Fear and stress are probably two of the greatest threats to the hormone. Michel Odent, the famous French obstetrician, writes in his book The Scientification of Love that the price the human race has paid for civilisation is problems with low sex drive, difficult childbirth and difficulties breastfeeding.

What is happening?

In the 1920s, a South African called Eugene Marais, a poet who wrote about pain and love, conducted an unusual experiment. He wanted to confirm that there was a connection between the pain of birth and maternal love.

Knowing Kaffir bucks never rejected their young, he gave a group of 60 labouring females a few puffs of chloroform and ether and noticed that the mothers refused to accept their newborn lambs afterwards.

Of course, human behaviour is more complex than animals' and human mothers don't reject their babies if they have pain relief during labour, but what this and many other subsequent experiments have shown is there are consequences from intervening in the birth process.

If a mother in labour is stressed or frightened, her levels of adrenaline increase and levels of oxytocin decrease. The neocortex ("new brain") is a highly developed part of our brains that becomes activated under stress, bringing our thinking, worrying brain alive. We are no longer in that other world or parallel universe women go into when their neocortex is quiet and their primal brain (the old instinctive brain) is in control of their bodies.

High levels of adrenaline also impact on a woman's production of the natural pain relievers released by the body in labour, called endorphins. This all leads to a mother who has more painful and less effective contractions. As a midwife I see this manifested in a terrified, wide-eyed mother (adrenaline makes you ready to fight or flee danger) who is not coping with labour and ends up with an epidural and then a synthetic version of oxytocin in a drip to get the contractions going again.

We refer to this as the cascade of intervention and it goes something like this:

  • The epidural can make the mother's blood pressure drop, affecting the blood supply to the baby.
  • The synthetic version of oxytocin can never be as gently regulated or released like the natural one the body produces, causing the baby to be more likely to be distressed.
  • The electronic foetal monitor that we need to attach because of the risks of these other two technologies show the baby might be distressed (often this is interpreted wrongly).
  • The woman is now more likely to have a caesarean section.
  • The woman, if she gets to second stage, can't feel the urge to push and finds it much harder to get upright for birth, ending up with a forceps or vacuum extraction.
  • An episiotomy (cut to the perineum) is often needed to make the vaginal passage wide enough for the instruments and baby.
  • The baby is more likely to need to go to the special care nursery.
  • The baby is less likely to breastfeed straight away, impacting on future breastfeeding.
  • The mother feels sore (caesarean or episiotomy) and wonders if it could have been different.

It might have been.

How can we fix it?

If we go back to the beginning of this cascade of intervention, we realise the frightened mother is often the key. Of course babies get distressed for different reasons or some simply won't fit through their mother's pelvis. The environment, though, can play a huge role in making women so frightened they actually alter the course of labour. The bright lights, shiny gadgets and strangers coming and going are not conducive to a good labour. We don't make love in such an environment, neither should we give birth in such an environment. The flow of the same hormone involved in both these fundamental human activities is similarly affected.

UTS Professor Maralyn Foureur, one of the authors of a new book called Birth Territory and Midwifery Guardianship has a passion about oxytocin and particularly how the environment we give birth in can impact on the flow of this important hormone.

She says, "The human body constantly adjusts to cues from its surrounding environment and the way we interpret our environment is through our senses. What we see, hear, taste, touch and smell triggers off a cascade of brain chemicals that control every body state and the major contributor to all this activity is oxytocin.

An environment that is regarded as safe and nurturing results in a flood of oxytocin. In contrast, when other surroundings make us anxious, oxytocin is shut down. Women understand this intuitively, stating in a large UK study that "the type of labour and delivery space influences how hard or easy it is to give birth."

How does water help?

A recent study showed the amazing impact of putting women in warm water when their labour slowed down. In this study they randomised women to either having the traditional medical approach of speeding up the labour with a synthetic hormone or putting them in warm water. More of the women who got into water gave birth normally without medical intervention.

Michel Odent calls this amazing response "releasing the brakes" that the stimulated neocortex has put on labour. This means our bodies calm in the warmth of the water, endorphins are released, pain is reduced and oxytocin begins to flow again. A similar effect can be seen when women are massaged or are just generally well supported and comforted. Reducing fear is a great way to increase the chance of a normal birth. This is why birth centres with big baths and double beds and no machines that go "ping" can help women achieve a normal birth.

Does the care we receive make a difference?

The care women receive during pregnancy, labour and birth can make a huge difference. Knowing the midwife who cares for you before the birth is one thing we know makes a difference, as is having good support people (Cochrane reviews).

Carolyn Hastie is the midwifery manager of the stand-alone midwifery unit at Belmont in the beautiful Hunter Valley. She sees women labour and birth differently when in a non-technical supportive environment. Carolyn says, "With one-to-one midwifery care, when women in labour ring, they are going to be speaking to someone they know and trust. That is instantly calming. The friendly voice on the end of the line soothes them, allowing their physiology to be in a relaxed, optimal state for birthing well. The birth environment is familiar to the women. They have seen their midwife for their antenatal care in the centre, with its profusion of plants, artwork, colour and photos of happy mothers and babies. They are relaxed, focused, confident and comfortable about coming in to give birth. They have looked forward to immersing themselves in one of the big baths when they are in strong labour. As the women slip into the baths, surrounded by the nurturing, loving presence of their families and midwives, they are infused with a sense of safety and trust. Birth proceeds as it is meant to and babies are born calmly, into a loving, peace-filled environment. Everyone is ecstatic. What a way to enter the world — a living testimony to the power of love."

The most important organ involved in childbirth is the brain, not the uterus, because it houses, amongst other things, the wonderful hormone of love. For birth to unfold as it should, women need to feel safe, loved and honoured — no different to lovemaking, actually!

Happy Valentine's Day to all the lovers and mothers. May your oxytocin flow freely!

From the Australian College of Midwives Presidents report December 2010. Dr Hannah Dahlen is the Associate Professor of Midwifery at the University of Western Sydney. She has been a midwife for more than 20 years. Hannah is also an executive member of the Australian College of Midwives, NSW Branch. She has researched women's birth experiences at home and in hospital and published extensively in this area. Hannah's website is www.hannahdahlen.com.au


1 comment(s) on this page. Add your own comment below.

Bryan Post
Feb 11, 2011 1:09am [ 1 ]

Very well written and pertinent information provided on oxytocin. Excellent points especially considering the controversy of fathers in the delivery room, the use of pitocin to induce labor, etc. all elements that have the ability to upset our natural life rhythms. Pregnancy and delivery are two of the most important times in our lives. Thank you for sharing your expertise and wisdom here. There is also more information regarding oxytocin at Oxytocin Central if your readers are interested.

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