Updated: Oct 5, 2019
If you have done any reading related to pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding, or attended any kind of antenatal course, then you will have heard of oxytocin. Oxytocin, often nicknamed the "love hormone", is an amazing hormone and plays some hugely important roles in having a baby. It is released by the posterior pituitary, part of a small, pea-sized gland at the base of the brain. However, it also has many positive effects for everyone at all stages of life. Let's look at it in more detail.
Oxytocin in Pregnancy
Oxytocin levels in the body start to rise right at the beginning of pregnancy. This leads to a change in metabolism, which helps the expectant mum's body to create an energy store,needed for the foetus' rapid growth. By the end of the third trimester, oxytocin levels are significantly higher than at the beginning. It is thought that this might help the pregnant mum to be more open and intimate in her relationships, thereby allowing more emotional support from others, and making her more accepting of help. At the same time, it may encourage more cautious behaviour, designed to keep the unborn baby safe.
There is an increasing amount of research into the effects of maternal stress on the foetus in utero, so finding ways to try and minimise stress, while maximising relaxation and oxytocin may be beneficial.
Oxytocin in Labour & Birth
When labour starts, releases of oxytocin will induce those all-important contractions of the uterus that will push your baby out into the world. Contractions become more frequent as labour progresses, and peak with the actual birth. Oxytocin also helps to decrease the feeling of pain (yes, really), and helps you to fall in love with your baby when they make their entrance into your life. It is also thought to help mothers forget the discomfort and pain of childbirth, perhaps explaining why so many are willing to go through it more than once.
Oxytocin in the Postpartum Period
Of course, by now, you will probably have heard all about skin-to-skin contact and its myriad benefits. One of these is the release of oxytocin. In fact, touch is one of the major stimulators of oxytocin release (in everybody, not just new mums and babies). When a baby is just born, she already has heightened levels of oxytocin sue to the stimulation provided by contractions during labour, and early skin-to-skin contact is important to the mother-baby bond, as well as improving the baby's growth and development, and facilitating breastfeeding. Skin-to-skin contact with her newborn baby gives mum her ultimate oxytocin high. It's not just mums though; the other parent will also feel a boost in oxytocin when in close contact with baby, helping them to bond too.
Oxytocin in Breastfeeding
There are several hormones involved in breastfeeding, with responsibilities including triggering the whole process, milk production more specifically, and regulating milk supply. Oxytocin is the one which is responsible for the milk ejection reflex, otherwise known as the 'let-down'. This is when the milk starts to flow at the beginning of a feed. The baby starts to suckle, signalling an oxytocin release in the mother's body. The oxytocin causes tiny muscle cells in the breast to literally squeeze the milk out. On average it takes just under a minute for the let-down to occur, and it usually happens a couple of times during each feed. In addition, the naturally close contact tends to be calming for the baby (as well as the mum), and helps to explain why breastfeeding is much more than just a milk delivery system. The release of oxytocin during breastfeeding also helps the uterus to contract after birth.
Oxytocin in Daily Life
Of course, oxytocin is brilliant for everyone, not just babies and new parents. IT is one of our "feel-good" hormones, helping us to feel relaxed and happy. When we have more oxytocin in our system, we have lower levels of stress hormones like cortisol and adrenaline. This helps us to keep our blood pressure down, leads to improved sleep and general better wellbeing. It also helps us to feel more connected to our loved ones.
Simple ways to get more oxytocin in your life include hugging someone you love, having sex (it's released when you orgasm), and even just having a really great laugh about something. In other words, do something you enjoy that makes you feel good!
Childbirth Without Fear: The Principles and Practice of Natural Childbirth, Grantly Dick-Read
The Oxytocin Factor: Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love and Healing, Kerstin Uvnas Moberg
The Hormone of Closeness: The Role of Oxytocin in Relationships, Kerstin Uvnas Moberg
Oxytocin effects in mothers and infants during breastfeeding http://www.infantjournal.co.uk/pdf/inf_054_ers.pdf