By Kelly Gray
You might already know that oxytocin plays a major role in the process of childbirth and breastfeeding. This birth-related hormone is responsible for the uterus pulling itself up to thicken the fundus so that the baby can be released. In other words, oxytocin contracts the uterus. When labor is undisturbed, oxytocin will flood the laboring woman’s body with a euphoric feeling while decreasing stress hormones. After labor, oxytocin helps with the let-down of the mother’s breast milk, as well as facilitate mother-baby bonding.
But, it’s even more nuanced than that.
Oxytocin is the body’s messenger of love, and that means a lot. It is produced in the hypothalamus and released via the pituitary gland. It flows through the blood of humans when they feel connected, intimate, and safe. Whether you are in your lover’s arms, nursing your newborn infant, or laughing with your best friend, your body releases oxytocin, which allows you to deepen your connection to those around you. Under its influence, we might experience the feeling that we often describe as love. What is that sweet restful feeling after an orgasm? What is that warm rush mothers get while breastfeeding? Or the need to hold your baby when you hear her cry? It’s oxytocin!
Scientists have identified oxytocin as having a major role in our ability to build community and form morality, all based on a unique transaction that happens between humans: TRUST. What’s really interesting about trust and oxytocin is that it’s largely built upon non-verbal cues and it’s a two way street. Oxytocin allows us to read another person’s non-verbal cues and decide whether we trust them and discern whether they trust us. If someone displays cues that they don’t trust us, our oxytocin lowers. Fortunately, if someone lets us know they trust us, that’s the foundation for a good relationship and our oxytocin flows. Oxytocin is literally the hormonal building block for relationships, family and community.
Thus, where we give birth and who we invite into the birth room affect our oxytocin levels, which in turn affect our experience of childbirth. For instance, if your provider looks at you while grimacing and says, “You’re making a baby that is too big for your body, we’ll need to talk about scheduling an induction or cesarean”, this will decrease your oxytocin levels. At the core of this statement, your provider is expressing distrust in your body’s ability to birth your baby. In reaction, your oxytocin production decreases and you might not trust your provider, or worse, your body. This additional stress might even affect your ability to spontaneously go into labor. On the other hand, when your midwife smiles at you and says, “Your body is perfect and your baby is perfect,” your oxytocin production surges. You build an intimate relationship that supports spontaneous labor that feels manageable and secure.
During birth, oxytocin aides in contracting your uterus, which allows your womb to pull up so that your baby can enter your birth canal and be born. The closer a laboring woman gets to having a baby, the stronger her contractions are, and the more oxytocin she has in her body. Her sensitivity to non-verbal cues is heightened, and the need for trust is even more crucial.
As support people, it is paramount to think of the laboring woman as having super human skills in reading non-verbal cues. Best intentions aside, what we tell her non-verbally affects her body and emotions. A provider who is peaking too loudly, too many interruptions or observers, or a partner who is jittery will have a profound impact on the progress of labor. When stressed, the laboring woman’s body will decrease her oxytocin production. In contrast, think of the woman who hears, “You are doing beautifully,” or “Take your time”, or sees her doula smiling from the corner of the room. She will feel her contractions strengthen and her euphoria surge. If she feels her partner’s arms embracing her while she sways in the candle lit room, she feel protected and safe and allowed to walk towards the intensity of birth. When her vocalizations are met with knowing nods, and her uncomfortability is met with enthusiasm, she can feel trust at the core of her experience. In turn, trust and connection will protect her body and her baby as her labor becomes stronger, and her contractions become longer and closer together. Since having longer, stronger and closer contractions is the only way to have your baby, why not have them from a place of euphoria?
Sexuality can teach us a lot about birth, the dance between intensity and euphoria, welcoming the peak of the experience, the need for trust, connection and consent. An orgasm is physiologically and emotionally very similar to that of a contraction. In both, you will find the need to relax, release, and allow them to surge through you on the bridge that links the mind and body. That bridge is built from the hormones of labor, particularly oxytocin.
Sports research shows that emotional transference, when one person’s emotions are redirected to another’s emotions through non-verbal cues, is oxytocin induced. Sports research also shows us that oxytocin increases under physical activity. The euphoric feeling experienced from playing with a team that you trust is real, and oxytocin allows players to build a cohesive unit based on positive emotions that enhance their game.
It’s not just where or with whom we birth that will determine our ability to get our oxytocin going. Culturally, we have a relationship that is suspicious of the woman’s body and her ability to move through her biological initiations like menstruation, birth or menopause with ease and joy. At large, we often go to places to birth our babies that we associate with sickness and death with emergencies that feel out of our control (and all our cultural confusion over those normal experiences). Often, due to cultural narratives that we inherit, we feel shame, fear and distrust around our bodies, gender or sex. Sometimes, our ability to create oxytocin is hindered by past traumatic experiences, mental health or autoimmune disorders.
What I really want you to know about oxytocin is that oxytocin allows you to fall in love with your newborn and understand all of his non-verbal cues. It’s at the core of our first human experience: having our needs met by our family. When the oxytocin cycle is interrupted, such as when synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) is given to the laboring woman, we see Moms who might struggle with milk production, postpartum depression, and are challenged to read their little one’s non-verbal cues. Synthetic hormones can decrease or even turn off our naturally producing hormones. This affects not only mothers and babies, but also all of the mother’s relationships. We know that medical interventions can be life saving, and sometimes, we must take risks like introducing Pitocin into the birth experience. If we do, we must determine if it is medically necessary so that you can trust the intervention. That’s worth repeating: to trust the intervention through the process of informed consent. We must be mindfully aware of all the ways we can strengthen our oxytocin experience during the intervention and afterwards. Protecting the hormonal loop is one of the greatest steps that we can take to protect the human experience and all that it has to offer: safety, connection, trust and love.
What can we do before, during and after birth to get oxytocin going? This is my go-to list, but feel free to add your own to it.
- Choose a birth team and location that you trust, and talk to them about what makes you feel safe and connected.
- Take a childbirth class out of the hospital that focuses on the mind~body connection, advocacy and evidence based birth practices.
- Hug, laugh and take a walk with a trusted friend.
- Participate in Community: attend a rally for a cause you believe in, go to a hip-hop show or the opera, sit with others in the presence of the divine, join a community garden or neighborhood project. Connect.
- Meditate, practice yoga, get acupuncture.
- Massage, make love, masturbate, feel sexy~ but only if you want to, otherwise it won’t work!
- Understand informed consent and be prepared to advocate for it- Childbirth Connection is a great resource for the legal rights of the childbearing woman.
- Ask your birth partner to become educated about the hormones of birth and their unique role in protecting your birth experience.
- Sing, Dance, Chant, Make Art; cultivate your creativity without inhibition!
- A daily practice of Positive Birth Affirmations: I trust myself, I trust my body, I trust my baby.
- Hold your baby, nurse your baby, and look into her eyes. Tell her that you love her, and let her know that you know that she loves you, too. Repeat, repeat, to infinity, repeat.
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