What is Oxytocin and Why is Oxytocin important during labour?

What is Oxytocin?

This is the queen of all hormones – if you could bottle oxytocin, you would probably become extremely rich. The word oxytocin is derived from the Greek words okus and tokos meaning quick childbirth5. The hormone is nature’s way of ensuring the survival of the species, as it is a wonderful incentive to continue to procreate. Oxytocin produces in us such powerful and positive feelings that it has been named as the “hormone of love” by Michel Odent:

“Whatever facet of love we consider, oxytocin is involved”

It is the hormone which is released whenever the chemical response of “love” kicks in: during love-making, birth, breastfeeding, bonding, cuddling and so on. It truly is the X factor that drives males and females together and that keeps them together. And as it is not a “one-hit wonder”, the more oxytocin we have in our system, the more we produce and the better we feel. In research it has been shown to have a cumulative effect, so, the more frequently we are exposed to oxytocin, the longer the effect lasts.

The production of oxytocin leads to feelings of calm, well-being, patience, increased social behaviour, lower blood pressure, better digestion and better healing. It even makes breastfeeding mothers more tolerant of monotony, and thus better able to cope with the challenges of early motherhood.

Oxytocin is present at every point in the reproductive cycle and throughout our lives. It is a rush of oxytocin that stimulates the sexual organs, that causes ejaculation and that causes the cervix to vacuum-in sperm. It causes uterine contractions during orgasm, which not only help the sperm on their way, but also produce a wonderful feeling and sense of well-being7.

During pregnancy, oxytocin levels are low, but they begin to increase towards the end of the last trimester. High levels of oestrogen at the end of pregnancy increase the number of oxytocin receptors in the mother’s brain in readiness to promote maternal behaviour. This means that by the time your baby is born, your brain has been “hard wired” for maternal instincts. During pregnancy, oxytocin triggers frequent uterine contractions, which help to strengthen the uterus and maintain the pregnancy, stimulating the flow of blood from the placenta to the baby. These are often known as “Braxton Hicks” contractions.

Even though no one is exactly sure how labour is triggered, we do know that it is oxytocin which is the “driver” behind labour. It is the pulsating release of oxytocin which triggers the long muscles of the uterus to reach down and gently pull open the circular muscles of the cervix. As the uterus contracts, signals are sent to the brain to produce more oxytocin, which helps the uterus contract more effectively, thus making more oxytocin, and so on. This wonderful cycle of triggers and hormone production will continue throughout labour, as long as the mother is not disturbed.

During labour, oxytocin receptors throughout the body are on high alert. These receptors are found in the cervix, birth canal, perineum, vagina and nipples, and even in the skin. Gentle pressure, massage and stimulation in any of these areas (the release of oxytocin during massage is well reported8) ensure that the production of oxytocin will remain steady and high, as long as there is no interference from fear-induced adrenalin, drugs or artificial hormones.

Once the gap in the cervix is large enough for the baby to pass through, and the head begins to press down into the birth canal, the receptors there send a new wave of signals, which trigger another surge of oxytocin, as the force of the contractions changes to one of pushing down rather than opening the cervix.

As well as the physical effects, oxytocin helps a woman to mentally “go off to a different plane” or “go into the zone” so that she lets go on a psychological, as well as a physiological, level, allowing her body to take control9.

At the moment of birth, if it is undisturbed, unobserved and there is minimal interference, a woman will experience a higher level of oxytocin in her body than at any other time. The reasons for this are manifold. Firstly, it is designed to produce an overwhelming feeling of love towards the baby, facilitating the process of “falling in love”. Again, nature is very clever, as this wonderful feeling is a powerful incentive and driver for a mother to look after her baby.

On a physical level, this oxytocin sends signals to the brain to begin producing milk for the baby, whilst also triggering the uterus to begin to shrink back down again to its pre-pregnancy shape and size and to release the placenta. Skin-to-skin contact with your baby and the massaging movements of your baby’s hands as she finds her way to the breast add to the stimulation to produce even more oxytocin. It is not a coincidence that there is a high concentration of oxytocin receptors in the skin of your chest, meaning that placing your baby on your chest will trigger even more oxytocin – ever wondered why hugging feels so good?

During this time it is vital that the mother and baby are left undisturbed, with as little stimulation as possible. It is also very important to keep the room really warm, as being cold can inhibit the production of oxytocin.

In the weeks after the birth of the baby, oxytocin continues to play a vital role in the production of prolactin (hormone for producing milk) and of course in the bonding process. As well as all the emotional benefits from oxytocin, such as having a sense of calm, well-being and patience, breastfeeding women also benefit from physical changes, including increased functioning of the digestive tract, so that they digest food effectively and efficiently in order to produce the right amount of milk for their baby, and the increased ability of the body to heal itself.

The production of oxytocin is not a conscious one – that is to say, it is not one that can be controlled by our higher intelligence. Oxytocin is a very instinctive and powerful, yet very sensitive, hormone. Any disturbance or interference – such as fear, embarrassment, feeling observed, feeling cold, or being exposed to loud noises – can slow down or even stop the production of oxytocin. Any overstimulation of the neocortex (the higher-intelligence part of us, which makes us different from mammals), such as talking, questions, analysing, formfilling, etc., can have a similar effect. In addition, medical interventions such as induction, epidurals, anesthetic injections or episiotomy will seriously scare off this wonderful hormone.

There may be times when the release of oxytocin is disturbed; however, there are specific tools and techniques that will enable you to deal with such interruptions or disturbances, so that you can quickly and easily get back on track to an instinctive birth.

I hope you can see just how important this wonderful hormone is and that, from now on, you will make it a priority to create the right environment and the physical and mental conditions to ensure that you produce bucketfuls during the birth and once the baby has been born.

Oxytocin, though, does not work in isolation. It is the production of an intricate cocktail of hormones which enables the body to open and release your baby.