Ah, lovely hormones! You are probably sick to the teeth hearing about hormones during your pregnancy. They seem to be the answer to all our ails...morning sickness...hormones; constipation...hormones; pelvic pain...hormones! However, what if I told you that understanding the role of hormones during your labour and birth can have a profound impact on your birthing experience. That's a pretty bold statement! So let's delve right in and discover how to make your labour smoother, and your birth easier.
There are 3 main hormones involved in the labour journey and they are oxytocin, adrenalin, and your endorphins.
The hormone of love! Oxytocin is a magic hormone and plays a crucial role in the birthing journey. In birth, oxytocin production increases as labour progresses, but interestingly it is also released during sexual activity, male & female orgasm, breastfeeding, and is also responsible for uterine contractions, and protects against postpartum hemorrhage. So it is pretty powerful!
High maternal oxytocin levels during labour & birth also benefit the baby. Research has found that it crosses the placenta and enters the baby’s brain during labour, when it acts to protect brain cells by switching them off. The is beneficial because it reduces the amount of oxygen that the baby’s brain requires at this time when contractions can reduce blood and oxygen supply.
Baby also produces oxytocin during labour, which helps to initiate the bonding process between mother and baby. It is enhanced by eye contact and skin-to-skin. Newborn levels of oxytocin subside during the first hour after birth but are elevated above normal for at least 4 days.
The most important thing to realize is that the more oxytocin produced in the body, the more efficient the surges (contractions) will be and the more smoothly labour will progress.
However, it doesn’t like the limelight; it's a really shy hormone! To flourish, it needs a relaxed, calm, warm and private environment.
If you think about labour, what comes to mind? Most people would think hospital, sterile surroundings with bright lights, machines, drugs, loud women, crying babies...right? Well, that is NOT a good environment in which oxytocin is going to flourish! You know it flows best when you are feeling safe and secure, warm and unobserved. Therefore, you gotta build this safe and secure environment at home AND then transfer it to the hospital. How do you do that? You do it by building your 'love nest', as I like to call it. Your birthing environment can be extremely calm, and you can communicate it all via your birthing preferences to your midwife or consultant, well before you go into labour, and also when you arrive to your hospital / birth centre.
For oxytocin to really flourish, think about the way the baby was made and then recreate this to form your ideal birthing situation :) As Dr. Sarah J. Buckley, says:
‘The parallels between making love and giving birth are clear,
not only in terms of passion and love,
but also because we need essentially the same conditions
for both experiences: privacy and safety’.
Dr. Sarah J. Buckley,
Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering, 2009
No mother can give birth if she feels unsafe, fearful or senses danger. Think of animals...have you ever had a pet dog or cat give birth when you were younger? What do they do? They hide somewhere dark where they feel safe, mostly at night time, when it's dark and there are no obvious dangers about. Ultimately when it comes to birth, we aren't too different to other animals! Birth is actually an extremely primal event.
When we experience fear or stress, messages are sent to receptors all over the body creating exaggerated reactions and we produce adrenalin. This then begins physiological and biochemical changes within the body, essentially preparing it for “fight or flight”. It increases heart and respiratory rates and shunts blood away from the non-essential organs (the uterus is not considered to be an essential organ), to the large muscles of the body.
The uterus is like any other muscles of your body. It will tire after repeated use, making it operate less effectively & become “used” quicker. It can’t get rid of waste products effectively without a good blood supply, which ultimately leads to a painful muscle = painful contractions.
Most importantly, the release of adrenalin will cause oxytocin production to slow down and the more adrenalin produced, the less oxytocin there is. This may lead to a stalling of labour. This is so important to understand. You can't have high levels of adrenalin in your body at the same time as having high levels of oxytocin. Remember Oxytocin is responsible for uterine contractions i.e. how you dilate, so therefore little oxytocin = little dilation = little progress in labour.
High levels of adrenalin in early labour have been associated with longer labour and more adverse fetal heart rate patterns. Therefore, it’s crucial that the labouring mother NEEDS to feel private, safe and unobserved in labour.
A few things which may cause adrenalin to rise in labour:
· Moving from home into hospital can create nerves
· Being observed in hospital
· Asking questions of the labouring woman
· Bright lights
· A cold room
· Interruptions by different staff members
· Stopping the mother in her flow
· Change of shifts
· Alarming the birth mother with any potential issue or future consequence
· Time limits
· Feeling fearful
Partners need to ensure that the mother's adrenalin levels are kept DOWN so that oxytocin can flourish.
Towards the end of labour – particularly in an undisturbed labour, when the birth is imminent, these hormones act in a different way. A sudden increase of adrenalin levels activate the “fetus ejection reflex”, giving the mother a sudden rush of energy. She will normally adopt an upright, alert position and may have an urge to hold onto something for support in order to give birth.
Our friends! These hormones are released when we exercise and also in response to pain, and are a naturally occurring opiate – similar properties to pethidine, morphine and heroin. They are the body’s natural pain killers, and work on the brain receptors. Endorphins are said to be many times more powerful than morphine.
As pregnancy goes on and as labour and birth approach, levels of endorphins continue to rise. High levels of endorphins give a labouring woman a “spaced-out” look & feel. Levels of endorphins are reduced when drugs are used for pain relief as the mothers own response mechanisms are blocked.
Like oxytocin, endorphin hormones can induce euphoria and facilitate the release of prolactin during labour, which prepares the breasts for lactation and also aids in the final stages of lung maturation for the baby. Endorphins are actually present in breast milk.
So there you have it, the 3 hormones responsible for a smooth labour journey.
To wrap up, you want to create a 'love nest' at home, and try to bring that calm, warm, safe and private environment into your birthing centre/hospital. I also recommend that women stay at home for as long as possible to allow oxytocin to flourish, as long as both mama and baby are doing well.
If you'd like further information on achieving the best birth for you, check out the 'Own Your Birth' birth preparation course online with NurtureMamas.
Take care ladies
xxx Helen xxx
Helen Plass is a Pre & Postnatal Fitness Specialist, and Yoga Instructor, working with women and their birthing partners to achieve a comfortable, healthy & happy journey into Pregnancy, birth and Motherhood. She is known for her very practical & non-judgmental approach to pregnancy and the crazy times of motherhood. Check out all her communication at NurtureMamas.com, and if you are in Ireland, her local business MumandBaby.ie