The power of love and oxytocin
by Sophie Fletcher
Those who know me know I am a little obsessed with oxytcocin. I love it, I think it’s an extraordinarily hormone, and I’m always testing it out in my daily life. Oxytocin makes me feel good and it makes those around me smile. It’s contagious, it’s warm, it’s empathetic and it’s compassionate. Oxytocin is also the key to a good birth, and why shouldn’t it be? It creates bonding, a sense of connection and euphoria; it also produces our body’s natural pain relievers by sending signals, from the hypothalamus in your brain, to several areas in your nervous system that relate to sensation of pain thereby diminishing sensations of pain.
It’s well known that undisturbed hormone exchanges during labour are vital in establishing a connection between mum and baby, but think of it in evolutionary terms. The euphoria we can experience at birth creates a longing to give birth again so that we thrive as a species. There are many women I know who would happily give birth again, and I’ve often heard women say “I could do it again next week, it was amazing”. That’s the effect of oxytocin.
As a woman goes into labour her oxytocin levels start to rise rapidly, then as labour progresses oxytocin continues to be released through what’s known as a positive feedback loop. This is when the release of a hormone causes an action that stimulates more of its own release until you feel the urge to push and bring your baby into the world. In birth this is sometimes referred to as the Ferguson reflex. I describe it in my classes a little like a conversation between the womb and the brain, each time receptors in the womb are stimulated by a contraction it sends a message to the brain saying” hey, give me more oxytocin please”, then the brain obliges triggering more oxytocin, which in turn increases contraction,s which then mean more oxytocin is released until baby is born and into the period when the mother feels that first rush of love for her baby. Anything added to the mix, such as anxiety, worry, interventions, even artificial oxytocin are like rude, brash interruptions and can disturb that happy, private, hushed conversation.
The joy of oxytocin is contagious. Some studies show that it is pheromonal and others say that it’s transmitted though very subtle facial gestures and body language that others pick up on unconsciously. This is because oxytocin also enhances our ability to pick on facial gestures and emotions, increasing our sense of empathy. In ‘The Power of Contagious Thinking’ David Hamilton talks of oxytocin as a “biological social glue..that played a vital role in our evolution, encouraging our ancestors to stick together, to care for their young to live in communities that offered greater protection against predators”. Recently during a birth I left the room for a little while, as I walked through the hospital every single person I walked past turned and smiled or even said something to me. It was so exaggerated that I noticed and clocked that I must be leaking oxytocin; in fact I was very relaxed, the atmosphere in the room had been wonderful and I must have been smiling as well. People felt a connection to me as I walked past them, clearly demonstrating the social contagion element of oxytocin.
Conversely because of its social element, oxytocin has also been shown to stimulate conformity which is very interesting. This is more commonly associated with adolescents as they often bow to peer pressure to fit in so they are accepted by their ‘community’. As childbearing women do we somehow conform to expectations of pain, trauma and not having the resources ourselves to cope with birth that we witness in the media and through stories we have been told? Do we conform to what we are being advised by our caregivers because birth is such an oxytocin rich environment?
Often I hear women say, why did I agree to that? Why did I tell my midwife I loved her whereas in hindsight she was a little annoying? If I don’t conform and agree to that intervention what will they think of me.? I’ve lost count of the number of women who are worried about telling the staff that they’ve done hypnobirthing and being laughed at. These reactions are all about conformity and can be a by-product of oxytocin. It can help to hire a doula or someone who can really advocate for you other than your birth partner, that way you know that your birth preferences are prioritised and that the only thing you will conform to are in line with your own values and beliefs.
Oxytocin during a birth is incredibly infectious and those that attend births be they midwives, doulas or husbands all experience that amazing rush after a birth. People often ask it I’m too tired to drive, but I’m always on what I call my ‘birth high’ for a couple of hours afterwards. However long I am with a couple, be it 4 or 14 hours I always feel the oxytocin effect wearing off and the tiredness creep in.
- Lower pulse rate and blood pressure
- It can reduce the sensation of pain in your body
- It can dilate blood vessels and create warmth, especially in the breasts where baby is feeding so that the mother literally becomes her baby’s incubator. This is also why a woman in labour appears flushed.
- Accelerate growth and healing of wounds.
- Stimulates the release of prolactin for milk production
- Support attachment between mother and baby
- trigger positive responses in the father who experiences that rush of euphoria and therefore bonding with baby
But, and this is a big ‘but’. In order for oxytocin to flow we have to feel private, safe and unobserved as Sarah Buckley, an expert in this field, writes in her book. Oxytocin is also a trust hormone or a shy hormone. We should feel safe in a familiar environment surrounded by people we trust. We should be free of any worry or anxiety either consciously or unconsciously. If we don’t feel safe and respected, if we are frightened or anxious of anything at all or anyone, if we trust neither our own bodies nor our caregivers the flow of oxytocin is compromised and instead we trigger the release of catecholamines, a set of stress hormones including adrenaline. These can slow labour down and do the exact opposite to oxytocin.
- Raise heart rate and blood pressure
- It can increase the sensation of pain in your body
- It can constrict blood vessels lowering the flow of oxygen to your uterine area
- It can slow healing down
- Restricts the release of other hormones such as prolactin
- It can create anxiety in the room which may lead to more intervention and trauma for all involved.
So to allow the flow of oxytocin and to experience the love and euphoria we are genetically primed to experience as women, we need to recognise how extraordinary the hormone oxytocin is. Here are five steps to letting oxytocin loose at birth, so you can really experience how birth should be.
- Trust your body, trust who is caring for you. Oxytocin is the trust hormone, so make sure you allow it to trust by creating a sense of trust around your birth. Look at hiring a doula who can help you and advocate for you.
- Familiarise yourself with a safe space, whether that is at home or at hospital, but make sure that you birth where you feel safe and familiar.
- Confidently prepare with a positive antenatal class looking at relaxation, hypnosis or yoga
- Connect with those who have had good experiences, saturate yourself with positive birth experiences – there are hundreds online, I particularly like this site “tell me a good birth story“
- Believe you can do it and let go of all worry