Oxytocin - the hormone of love.
Oxytocin is what started it all. And it never stops playing a vital role. From conception to birth and beyond.
This vital hormone is produced and supported by safe, connected, good-feeling environments and loving interactions. And so in light of this, why do we do so little to support its vital role in birth? Why do we, in fact, so often actively interrupt it??
Imagine if we treated the act of creating the child like we do the birthing of it!
Imagine having sex with a room of people watching on, bright lights, being given instructions, being told when to go faster or slower…. Even worse, telling you sternly bad things will probably happen if you don’t do it right & let them run the show.
How ‘in love’ with your partner do you think you would feel during that sex? How aroused do you think you would feel at all?
Instead, do you think you might feel - overwhelmed, afraid? Unable to ‘perform.’ I mean, you would probably refuse to have sex under those conditions, unless you're an actor and this is a movie set.
And you'd probably indignant and angry. And rightly so.
Well, maybe you should also be feeling that about birth - indignant and angry, that is, NOT fearful.
Except that it is fear that seems to be the predominant emotion ruling birthing experiences. Sometimes even panic.
Just think of almost any mainstream TV show or movie you’ve seen that involves a woman giving birth - most of the time it’s portrayed as rushed, “quick, get to the hospital!”, involving a room full of medical professionals, probably a lot of shouting, and a woman on her back, legs in the air, being coached to PUSH as she screams and pants, red faced and desperate to “GET THIS THING OUT OF ME.”
Maybe it’s comical sometimes, maybe somewhere we know that is not like that, or doesn’t have to be. But I’m afraid that a lot of the time, this portrayal of birth — being the closest a lot of us get to what goes on in birth until we go through it ourselves — does end up infiltrating our psyche.
And perhaps it’s portrayed like that in the first place because it’s a reflection of what we think about birth.
Almost that it’s unnatural! That we can’t possibly do it without some sort of intervention or ‘coaching’ of the process. And at the very least, you need a whole lot of hands up in your hoo-ha or who knows what could go wrong!
It’s not only that we do feel fear, but that we are basically told that we should be afraid, that child birth is dangerous, practically a medical emergency even if it all goes ‘normally’.
But what if it is NOT childbirth itself that is actually the most dangerous thing? What if it is our skewed view of ‘normal’ & the fear we all harbour do deeply that is actually the most dangerous thing?
Just like sex is completely not what it’s meant to be if you are feeling afraid at the time - neither is birth what it’s meant to be when you fear it.
And it comes down to the organ that is most important in the birthing process.
And that’s not actually your uterus - it’s your brain.
Your brain is the most important organ in birth.
Just like women tend to make love with their minds first, so do we birth with our minds first.
And that’s not just some airy-fairy concept - there’s good reason for it. It’s because the cascade of hormones - and the feedback loops of the whole birthing process - all begin in your brain.
And if that process is interrupted, then the whole process gets out of whack. This is why interventions tend to beget more interventions, because it’s harder for the body to take back over once it’s interfered with.
And the biggest obstacle to the natural flow of birth is Fear.
Fear vs Oxytocin
Fear and stress are both very real threats to the hormonal key to birth - oxytocin.
Oxytocin is the hormone of love. And it is key in the birthing process, playing a role in the strength and efficiency of your contractions, and interacting with other hormones to create positive feedback loops that increase the actions of each other, ripen the cervix etc.
It may be the reason orgasmic birth - which you might think of as a pipe dream - is actually possible. During the stage where you are pushing your baby out, the baby’s head descending triggers more receptors which increase oxytocin even more. (As long as this process hasn’t already be disrupted.) A flood of oxytocin right then can feel pretty damn good!
But fear & stress - raising adrenaline levels - interferes with this oxytocin process, as well as others, including the release of our body’s natural pain relievers, endorphins.
And so while oxytocin can actually suppress our feelings of fear, if the oxytocin process is interrupted, it is very easy to slip into a negative loop of increasing fear, which creates more stress, less natural pain relief, making it feel worse, and therefore more stressful and so on.
Then labour slows or stalls, requiring more interventions, more interruptions to the natural process, suppressing natural oxytocin release even more…. And on we go.
While there are artificial hormone drugs, like Pitocin, that mimic the effects of oxytocin, these aren’t synced into the natural flow. So they overwhelm receptors, overwhelm the process as they flood in all at once and not as part of the normal feedback loops. So while they might technically “work” in certain ways to stimulate contractions of the uterus, they can cause a kind of relentless and more painful labour, and are not an ideal go-to, and definitely do not replace the real oxytocin produced in our own bodies.
But if we support the natural oxytocin?
With a strong, supported flow of oxytocin and all the other processes it feeds into, labour is much more likely to be effective, safe and smooth sailing. Still intense, but it also allows us to slip into another state where pain is not actually a key factor.
Oxytocin - directly or indirectly as part of the symbiotic nature of the body’s systems - is necessary and involved in:
- the strong and effective surges of the uterus
- the ripening of the cervix
- feelings of calm and even pleasure
- expelling the placenta
- the uterus contracting down to prevent excessive postpartum bleeding or haemorrhage
- the feeling of bonding and love for your baby
- preventing post-natal depression….
All things we want during birthing. And actually easier to achieve than we have been led to believe!
Our hormonal systems are complex and, in general, not very well understood. But the good news is, you don't actually need a medical degree to be able to support the hormonal systems of birth - you don't even really need to know the ins and outs of how it works at all.
Just how to, at the very least, not interrupt the process, and even better - support and enhance it.
And this is not that complicated.
It begins in our minds, and with our beliefs around what birth is and can be. Of allowing ourselves to believe that fear doesn't need a place in birth.
If a woman feels calm, supported, safe, loved, relaxed, confident - oxytocin is much more likely to do it’s thing. And if we refrain from unnecessarily interfering or intervening, then it will continue to do its thing.
So how do we support oxytocin, this beautiful, wonderful, natural, vital element of birth?
We stop treating birth like a medical emergency right off the bat - and really much less like a medical event at all, unless something warrants it - take our hands off, and learn to support and enhance the strong flow of oxytocin - beginning even before labour does.
Oxytocin Before, During & After Birth
Oxytocin increases over your pregnancy, so you can begin to support the production of it long before you approach labour - simply by doing things that make you feel good & connected.
Things that support your connection to, and trust in, your own body.
- Take time for relaxation, bonding with your partner, and bonding with your baby even while in utero, and with your other kids or loved ones.
- Sex! Or massage. Or just cuddling.
- Take a bath and put your hands on your belly and think about your baby.
- You can begin to use scents and music you find relaxing and happy-making, and then hopefully increase the association & oxytocin triggering effects of these things for labour itself.
- Use affirmations and meditation during your pregnancy to practice remaining in a calm, flowing place. Something you can return to during labour to feel confident you can go with the intensity of it all, rather than trying to run away from it.
- Don't allow negative or fearful conversations around birth. People will feel they're just trying to be realistic and helpful, but as I've mentioned, it is fear itself that is the biggest risk factor - so the most important thing is to minimise its foothold.
- If you read anything, read empowering birth stories and articles. Of course you should be informed and educated from 'practical' viewpoints, and the more familiar you are with the process of birth, the more normal and natural you can feel about it, the better. But so much of even the 'educational' stuff is rooted in fear-based beliefs and practices. So make the balance of what you surround yourself with strongly weighted towards things that make you feel confident and powerful - and it's okay to avoid reading too much at all if it makes you feel anxious.
- Dancing can be a really effective oxytocin boosting, feel good activity. Both during pregnancy and during labour.
- Closer to, or during labour, nipple and breast stimulation and massage can be really effective for triggering and supporting oxytocin.
For During Labour:
- Prepare your space. This is why birthing at home has so many pros, as you can prepare the space ahead of a time, exactly as you want it.
- Even if you are not birthing at home, you can prepare - bring things with you (pictures, candles (or the ‘fake’ kind), scents, massage oil, music, a certain blanket or fabric) - and of course your partner or support person/people who will make you feel loved.
- And if you do have control over the environment, try to adapt it to suit you as much as possible.
- No bright lights, no examinations or interference - or as little as possible. Even other people touching you in ways that aren’t supportive or that you don’t want - even just checking or adjusting some monitoring equipment can bring you out of the hormone induced birthing bubble that is so important.
- Let your birthing support people know to enforce these boundaries on your behalf, so that you don’t have to.
- Quiet and calm. Basically like you are preparing for really romantic love making. You wouldn’t do that under harsh lighting, with people coming in to ‘check up’ on your progress, or with a lot of noise and distraction going on nearby.
- Make an oxytocin boosting ‘altar’ space - affirmations that make you feel calm and loved, scents (that maybe you used during pregnancy also to relax, can trigger the same responses), pictures that help you daydream - either about happy moments in the past, or things that represent happy dreams for the future, music that evokes those good feelings. (You may be sensitive to sounds and smells during labour, so make sure the smells are ones that can be taken away & you may end up wanting to turn off the music.)
- Loving touch by your partner - if you feel like being touched, which eventually you may not. But early on especially, kissing, massage, even just hand holding. Sex if you feel like it. (It doesn’t even have to be a romantic partner though, just someone you trust and feel loved and supported by, someone whose touch you welcome.)
- If you’re someone who likes to be left alone and not touched at a certain point, you can touch and feel that love within yourself. It’s your brain, so whatever works for you, is what works for your oxytocin!
- If you’re at the point where you’re off in lala land, then the oxytocin is already working well - so just do your best to cultivate a birthing environment that allows you to remain there undisturbed once you get to that point.
If fear gets a foothold:
If at some point fear does set in, or you start feeling worried or panicked, it's not too late. It is possible to regain calm again and allow the natural flows of hormones to be effective again. Remember, oxytocin actually suppresses the part of our brain that allows us to feel fearful and worried, so by increasing oxytocin, you decrease fear.
- Return to bonding, connection, with your partner or a support person. With your baby. With yourself.
- Loving, comforting touch, if you feel like being touched at that point.
- Return to the affirmations or cues from your pregnancy that help you remember your strength and empowerment.
- Rest. Breathing.
- Going with the flow rather than resisting it or trying to escape. Recognising that increased intensity is often a sign of how close you are getting to your baby arriving.
- Remove anything that is causing distraction or contributing to anxiety. That includes people! Prepare your support people ahead of time so that they will confidently tell anyone to get the hell out at any time, if that becomes necessary. Or so they will understand if you tell them to leave you alone. Because, nobody else's feelings are more important than you being able to be calm and focussed and supported right then, in whatever way is best for you!
- Warm water, being in a bath or shower can be calming and endorphin stimulating, helping you get back on track.
- But if anything that was previously helping is becoming a distraction - music, scents, bath, massage and touch etc - then stop it. At some point, you may just need to be all-hands-off to let yourself go into that lala land of birthing.
- Make sure you have the space and time to connect with your baby uninterrupted, for as long as you want to. Skin to skin.
- Looking at, touching, smelling your baby creates an oxytocin peak. This is important for the third stage (expelling the placenta and your uterus clamping down to stop bleeding), and also vital in that feeling of bonding - important for both emotional reasons and physical ones. Like breastfeeding & warding off post-natal depression.
- The baby touching your breasts, even if he or she doesn’t properly latch on right away, is also a natural oxytocin trigger.
- No whisking the baby away, unless absolutely medically necessary. No probing and prodding and distractions.
- Still no bright lights or busyness and activity. Keep it quiet, intimate, joyful, emotional - whatever you feel at the time.
- As much as possible, create space to just be - and enjoy the oxytocin high!!
So if you are preparing for birth, beyond all the practical things to think about, preparing our minds for confident, empowered, fear-free birth is I think the most vital element to safer natural births and long term positive outcomes for both mothers and babies.
And it’s simpler to achieve than we think. In a time when most of us in the Western World are not subject to the kind of poverty, malnutrition, unhygienic or unsafe environments that many still are, which are the causes of so many poor birth outcomes - we should be feeling the most free and empowered around birth that we ever have in history.
And yet we aren’t. And that fear of birth may be playing a critical role in so many of the complications and outcomes that we wish to avoid.
What if we treated birth more like we do intimate sex, and less like a medical procedure?
Love vs Fear
We can choose. We can be empowered in birth. We can support the natural processes for safer, calmer and positive natural birth experiences for so many more women.