Oxytocin: Making Labor and Breastfeeding Easier
Oxytocin has been referred to as the ‘love hormone’ and the ‘cuddle chemical’ because it surges when we feel ‘in love’ or loving, when we connect with others, and can be triggered by touch such as massage or cuddling. This amazing neurotransmitter plays a critical role in your childbearing year, from triggering contractions to making the milk flow to helping you bond with your new arrival. Oxytocin, at optimal levels, not only helps us to feed and birth our babies, but also to fall in love with them. So how can you help maximize your oxytocin levels?
Oxytocin builds in your body throughout labor, causing the increasingly strong contractions that lead to the birth of your baby. As you near the end of your labor, your skin becomes flushed, your pupils dilate, and your senses heighten. This hormonal rush may lead you to seek out dark quiet places. It was probably first a protective mechanism that helped early humans find safe places to have their babies. An added benefit to this instinctive behavior—your newborn will have better luck focusing on your face in a dim and peaceful environment, helping to create that first bond.
The flood of this critical neurotransmitter will also make your skin hotter to the touch, which makes you the perfect baby warmer! Research shows that a baby placed on mama’s skin after birth does a better job at regulating her own temperature than those in a mechanical warmer. The close contact of baby leads to more oxytocin for mom, which in turn helps with the first breastfeeding—and more love for your baby!
Your baby also reaps the benefits from a dose of oxytocin delivered through the placenta before birth. His senses, too, are heightened for the first greeting of his parents. Newborns have better eyesight right after birth than they do a week later, all thanks to oxytocin. Babies and mothers who are together right after birth can make the most of this hormone rush.
The same skin-to-skin contact that helps keeps a baby warm at birth also helps to get that first breastfeeding off to a good start. In fact, a baby placed on their mother’s belly after birth and left undisturbed will crawl up to the breast, locate the nipple, latch and suckle. This amazing skill is enhanced in large part by high oxytocin levels.
And as that baby breastfeeds, the release of the milk is caused by, you guessed it, oxytocin. But this hormone isn’t done yet. The same rush that causes the flow of milk also causes the uterus to further contract, controlling postpartum bleeding, and makes for improved recovery overall for the woman who has given birth.
So how does a mother-to-be and her support team, including her partner, doula, and care provider help to maximize oxytocin at birth and beyond? The optimal environment for oxytocin flow is quiet, dark, and intimate, where we can feel close with our partner, and safe. The support team can focus on removing the roadblocks that can come between a laboring woman and the healthy flow of hormones. Lack of privacy, fear, and tension during birth can activate the “fight or flight” reaction, causing the release of stress hormones like cortisol and vasopressin. These, in turn, compete with and suppress oxytocin.
Many steps can be taken before the birth to ease tension during the big event. Taking high quality childbirth education classes, talking with your provider about expectations for the birth, and learning comfort measures for birth increase confidence and reduce stress. A labor support doula can provide assistance not only during the birth, but during the prenatal time, with education and a safe space to discuss your hopes and fears.
During the birth, helping mom find those “safe spaces” she seeks—by dimming the lights, keeping noise to a minimum, and honoring her requests to be touched (or not touched)—keep the love high and the stress low. Respecting mom’s wishes for laboring positions and supporting her instinctual responses, whenever medically possible, also helps.
Finding ways to keep mothers and babies together after birth, skin-to-skin, can maximize oxytocin and take best advantage of its effects. Delaying routine care, such as the first bath, until after the first breastfeed can help protect this initial window when baby is learning to feed and everyone is bonding.
But what if separation is necessary? The good news is that the benefits of this key moment can be recreated through skin-to-skin time and lots of cuddling in a low stress environment. Breastfeeding challenges can often be overcome by allowing a baby to rest, un-swaddled and unclothed on her mother’s chest. Once there, baby can explore her fists and find her way to the breast, just as she might have at birth.
The more stress or separation a mother or her baby experiences during birth or immediately postpartum, the more important it is to get back to basics! Other caregivers, be it family members or a skilled postpartum doula, can help by removing further stressors such as day-to-day maintenance of the house, meal preparation, and sibling care so mom and baby can reconnect and experience all the benefits of the love hormone.
Karen Laing, IBCLC,RLC is the founder of Birthways, Chicagoland’s oldest and largest community of labor support and postpartum doulas. She is a board certified lactation consultant and a midwife and has practiced as a labor support doula.