Planning a natural birth? I’ve got a question for you: If your body could make a substance that releases morphine-like painkillers during labor, surges at just the right time to help with delivery, and connects you with your baby so deeply that your heartbeats synchronize, you’d want it right?
Good, because it totally does.
That substance is oxytocin, which is also known as the “Love Hormone.” We all make it, but pregnant mamas make more of this “Molecule of Kindness” throughout pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. That’s a fantastic thing, as we’ll discuss below.
So, what is oxytocin? ^
Made in your hypothalamus and released into your bloodstream by your pituitary gland, oxytocin does double duty as both a hormone and a neurotransmitter.
As a hormone it engages with your endocrine system to “control nearly all the processes in your body,” says The Cleveland Clinic. Specifically, your hormones “help coordinate your body’s functions, from metabolism to growth and development, emotions, mood, sexual function and even sleep.” (1)
As a neurotransmitter it engages with your nervous system – mostly your brain – where it helps to promote relaxation, strengthen emotional bonds, and more.
We all have different baseline levels of oxytocin – in other words, some people make more than others. However, our levels are not set in stone, and there are several ways we can boost our production of oxytocin naturally.
As always, this is not medical advice, none of these statements have been evaluated by the FDA, and I recommend you talk with your doctor or midwife about what is right for you.
- So, what is oxytocin?
- Benefits of Oxytocin for Birth, Breastfeeding & Bonding
- 18 Ways To Support Healthy Oxytocin Levels
- How To Increase Oxytocin During Pregnancy
- Ways To Increase Oxytocin During Labor
- Boosting Oxytocin After Birth
- 9 More Ways To Boost Oxytocin Naturally
- Want to learn how to have an awesome birth without leaving your couch?
Benefits of Oxytocin for Birth, Breastfeeding & Bonding ^
There are so many ways that having optimal oxytocin levels can contribute to a positive birth and breastfeeding experience, as well as creating strong emotional bonds.
1. Helps soften the cervix to prepare for labor – There’s an interesting study about how eating dates may increase this effect, which we’ll discuss below.
2. Triggers The Endorphin Effect – Oxytocin stimulates the production of pain-relieving beta-endorphins, which are 18 to 33 times more potent than morphine. (2)
3. Helps the uterus work harmoniously during labor – We know that pain can activate the fight or flight response, which can cause the the inner uterine muscles (which are horizontal) to work against the outer uterine muscles (which are vertical). When oxytocin flows to the brain, it activates the calm and connection response (along with beta-endorphins for pain) to help relax the cervix. When that happens, the outer and inner muscles work in harmony to open.
4. Sends signals that can help prevent hemorrhaging – Oxytocin surges just before birth, which can trigger the “Fetal ejection reflex” (making birth easier) and sending a signal that helps the uterus contract and expel the placenta quickly to minimize blood loss.
5. Love and bonding – Oxytocin is the “Love Hormone” that helps mama and baby bond.
6. Induces a state of calm – When a baby latches to breastfeed, oxytocin and another hormone – prolactin – start flowing. Oxytocin helps with the let-down reflex, which is a natural reflex that causes breast milk to flow. It’s also associated with an increased sense of calm and lower stress levels. (3) (4)
18 Ways To Support Healthy Oxytocin Levels ^
In the sections below, you’ll find research-backed ways to support healthy levels of oxytocin throughout several stages:
- During Pregnancy
- During Labor
- After Birth
I’ve also included one more section with strategies that work anytime, pregnant or not.
How To Increase Oxytocin During Pregnancy ^
Oxytocin is derived from two Greek words (oxus and tokos) which literally translate as “quick birth.” As you might imagine, it plays a significant role in preparing a woman’s body for labor and birth. One way it does that, which I just mentioned above, is to help ripen the cervix so that it dilates more easily.
Here’s how to support healthy levels (and how well the oxytocin functions) in the weeks leading up to labor.
1. Start eating dates 4-6 weeks before your due date.
Research has shown that they have oxytocin-like effects that help ripen the cervix, increase tolerance to pain, and reduce the risk of hemorrhage.
It seems that date fruit influences oxytocin receptors, stimulates the uterine muscles to respond more comfortably to oxytocins, and better prepares the uterus and cervix for delivery (10). Khadem et al. (2007) demonstrated that date fruit has oxytocin-like effects and its nutritional and therapeutic characteristics reduce postpartum hemorrhage.” (5)
In the study, mamas ate about 1/3 cup of dates per day divided into three doses. They can be polished off alone or made into cherry pie energy bars.
2. Optimize Nutrients That Support Oxytocin
Although a healthy pregnancy diet includes a wide variety of nutrients, there are three in particular that seem to play a special role in oxytocin production:
Vitamin D – Known as the “Sunshine Vitamin,” vitamin D activates the production of oxytocin and two other hormones, serotonin and vasopressin. (6) Sunlight is a great way to support healthy vitamin D levels, and its benefits go beyond just that one nutrient.
However, during the winter when it’s difficult to get enough vitamin D from light, natural sources like cod liver oil or pastured lard are my go-to options.
Magnesium – This “Magic Mineral” helps oxytocin receptors function properly, which basically means it assists the “Love Hormone” in docking at various ports so that it can be unloaded and do it’s very important work. (7)
Unfortunately, CNN has called low levels of magnesium “an invisible deficiency” that affects up to 75% of adults. When I was pregnant, I focused on magnesium-rich foods and also used topical magnesium like this body butter.
Vitamin C – Found in leafy greens, citrus and other foods, vitamin C is also a co-factor for oxytocin synthesis. I prefer whole-food based sources of vitamin C like this powder or these capsules.
Ways To Increase Oxytocin During Labor ^
Did you ever play on a seesaw when you were little? If so, you know that when one side goes up, the other goes down. That’s kind of the way oxytocin and cortisol work – when the stress hormone (cortisol) goes up, oxytocin goes down. (8)
On the flipside, when the calm and connection hormone (oxytocin) goes up, cortisol goes down. The important thing to know about this link is that during birth, the best thing we can do to keep oxytocin production flowing is to minimize exposure to stressors that can trigger the fight or flight response.
Here are some ways to do that:
3. Eat And Drink As Needed
Dr. Michel Odent, whose work I first became familiar with via the Happy Healthy Child Series, “cautions that even hunger, which also causes the body to release fight-or-flight hormones, can stop labour from progressing. He advises women to eat – if they are hungry – in the earliest stages of labour; many hospitals, though, have a policy that prevents labouring women from eating once they are admitted.” (9)
4. Warm Water
Have you ever wondered how water birth became so popular? It happened when French obstetrician Michel Odent (mentioned above) noticed that his patients seemed to have a powerful attraction to showers and bath during labor. He picked up an inflatable blue wading pool at a local shop, and the rest is history. (10)
So what’s behind this powerful attraction? Dr Hannah Dahlen, who is the Associate Professor of Midwifery at the University of Western Sydney, offers this insight:
A recent study showed the amazing impact of putting women in warm water when their labour slowed down. In this study they randomised women to either having the traditional medical approach of speeding up the labour with a synthetic hormone or putting them in warm water. More of the women who got into water gave birth normally without medical intervention.
Michel Odent calls this amazing response ‘releasing the brakes’ that the stimulated neocortex has put on labour. This means our bodies calm in the warmth of the water, endorphins are released, pain is reduced and oxytocin begins to flow again. A similar effect can be seen when women are massaged or are just generally well supported and comforted.” (11)
5. Create A Calm Environment
Instead of stressful bright lights and loudly beeping machines, most mamas relax into the process more when surrounded by dim lights (or candlelight) and their favorite playlist or nature sounds. Some also enjoy aromatherapy via diffused essential oils.
6. Avoid Unnecessary Interventions
Something as simple as an IV can dilute oxytocin. If a woman’s labor begins to slow after the introduction of an IV, care providers may recommend the use of synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) to keep things going.
Though Pitocin is chemically equivalent to oxytocin, it works very differently in the body. Oxytocin is produced within the brain, so it has “psycho-emotional effects, it’s a hormone of calm and connection, a hormone of love, a hormone with natural pain-relieving properties. When we inject it into the mother’s body it doesn’t cross back into her brain and it doesn’t have these beneficial psycho-emotional effects.” (12)
7. Nipple Stimulation
When our nipples are massaged or stimulated by a baby’s latch, it triggers the release of oxytocin in the brain. (4) If labor slows down, some women find that nipple stimulation gets oxytocin flowing again.
Boosting Oxytocin After Birth ^
Once baby is born, oxytocin plays a strong role in helping mama and baby bond while also supporting a general sense of well-being. (13) That happens in two main ways:
8. Skin-To-Skin Care
There are so many reasons to be skin-to-skin with your baby after birth – the physical contact supports better sleep, improved gut health and immune function for baby, and of course the production of oxytocin to help mama and baby create a strong bond. Here’s a guide to skin-to-skin care.
Breastfeeding triggers the release of oxytocin into mothers and their milk, relaxing both mama and baby. (14)
Important note: Although breastfeeding is natural, it can sometimes be challenging, too. I discovered that personally with my second child, and I sought the help of a wonderful lactation consultant who explained to me that he was tongue-tied.
If you want to breastfeed and are having trouble, I highly recommend reaching out to a lactation consultant. Also, here’s a guide to checking for tongue and lip ties.
9 More Ways To Boost Oxytocin Naturally ^
These strategies work anytime, not just during pregnancy, labor and postpartum.
- Watch a movie that makes you laugh, preferably out loud
- Cuddle a loved one (It’s called the Cuddle Hormone for a reason!)
- Have sex
- Plan a girls night out and laugh with friends
- Give a gift
- Get a massage
- Share a meal with someone you love. Give them your full attention, especially when it comes to eye contact.
- Petting or playing with a cat, dog, rabbit, etc. (if you have one) can also increase oxytocin (15)
Bonus tip: If you’re going to be looking at your phone, computer or t.v. at night, wear blue blocking glasses. Nighttime blue light exposure reduces our production of melatonin so it’s important to avoid it when possible, especially during pregnancy.
Melatonin doesn’t increase oxytocin directly, but it does synergize with it to make the uterus contract better. (16)
Want to learn how to have an awesome birth without leaving your couch? ^
If you’re looking for an evidence-based, naturally-minded resource, I highly recommend the Mama Natural Birth Course and/or The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth.
You’ll learn about:
- Delayed cord clamping, which boosts baby’s iron stores by 30% and improves fine motor skills and social development later in life.
- Skin-to-skin contact, which regulates baby’s body temperature and blood pressure, reduces stress hormones, and helps initiate early breastfeeding.
- Gentle cesarean, which can “seed” baby’s microbiome, eliminate fluids from baby’s lungs, while empowering the mama.
- The importance of eating during labor, and so much more.
Click here to check out the Mama Natural Birth Course, and here to check out The Mama Natural Week-by-Week Guide to Pregnancy and Childbirth.
Gorgeous top photo published with permission from Leilani Rogers – she’s based in Austin if you’re looking for an amazing birth photographer. ♥
1. Cleveland Clinic. Endocrine System.
2. Loh, H et. al. (1976) Beta-endorphin is a potent analgesic agent
3. Liu, Jianghong et. al. (2014) Breastfeeding and Active Bonding Protects against Children’s Internalizing Behavior Problems
4. World Health Organization (2009) Infant and Young Child Feeding: Model Chapter for Textbooks for Medical Students and Allied Health Professionals
5. Kordi, Masoumeh et. al. (2014) The Effect of Late Pregnancy Consumption of Date Fruit on Cervical Ripening in Nulliparous Women
6. Children’s Hospital & Research Center Oakland (2014) Causal link found between vitamin D, serotonin synthesis and autism in new study
7. Antoni, F.A. and Chadio, S.E. (1989) Essential role of magnesium in oxytocin-receptor affinity and ligand specificity
8. Heinrichs, M., Baumgarten et al. (2003) Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress
9. Buckley, Sarah. (2005) Pain in Labour: Your hormones are your helpers
10. Odent, Michel. (2014) The Scientification of Love: Revised Edition
11. Dahlen, Hannah. Oxytocin: The hormone of love and birth
12. Happy Healthy Child Documentary Series
13. Scatliffe, Naomi et. al. (2019) Oxytocin and early parent-infant interactions: A systematic review
14. Moberg, Kerstin Uvnäs and Prime, Danielle K. (2013) Oxytocin effects in mothers and infants during breastfeeding
15. Neumann I.(2007) Oxytocin: The Neuropeptide of Love Reveals Some of Its Secrets
16. Sharkey, James et. al. (2009) Melatonin Synergizes with Oxytocin to Enhance Contractility of Human Myometrial Smooth Muscle Cells
Read My Comment Policy
Wonderfully written article. Well, this is quite an interesting topic I never knew about; oxytocin (the calm and connection hormones) and cortisol (the fight and flight hormones). In my understanding, it seems that the calm and connection hormones (oxytocin) is influenced by any activity that cause or warrant mother’s relaxation or happiness. And on the other hand cortisol is influenced by activity that stresses the mother’s mind or body.
With my clear understanding of the message here, it’s without doubt important to consider these factors when aiming for a healthy and happy delivery.
But still a question remains unanswered, I would like to know, wouldn’t exercise during labor interfere with obtaining a smooth child birth, i mean exercise will obviously trigger the release of cortisol, wont it?
I don’t know of anyone that has exercised during labor specifically (other than the actual labor part that is definitely an endurance sport), but if you’re thinking of exercise during pregnancy you’re correct that it temporarily spikes cortisol. However, after the exercise is complete it usually drops cortisol below previous baseline levels, and therefore is considered beneficial. The term for this phenomenon is called hormetic stress, which is described as a type of stress that causes beneficial changes in physiology.
Thank you! I’m 34 weeks so this is perfect timing?
Thanks a lot for the information.
You really wrote a great post. It’s specially important for to me. Because I’m planning to become pregnant.
Hi! Question, I have had three babes and for some reason my body doesn’t go into labor on it’s own and I have always had to be induced. Do you think it could be I just need to try to create more oxytocin? I am preggo with my 4th an really am looking for ways to be able to get my body to go into labor without help. Any suggestions would be greatly appreciated! Thx!!