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 the “Molecule of Kindness” throughout pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding. That’s a fantastic thing, as we’ll discuss below!
How much do oxytocin levels rise during pregnancy?
The answer to that depends on a woman’s baseline oxytocin levels (some people make more than others) and lifestyle factors.
However, it’s not all up to biology and circumstances that we may not have the ability to influence – there are several ways we can boost the production of oxytocin naturally for the best possible birth, breastfeeding and bonding experience.
5 Benefits of Oxytocin for Birth, Breastfeeding and Bonding
There are so many, such as helping the cervix soften prior to labor, but here are some worth mentioning:
1. Oxytocin triggers The Endorphin Effect – It stimulates the production of beta-endorphins, which are 18 to 33 times more potent than morphine. (1)
2. 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.
3. 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.
4. Love and bonding – Oxytocin is the “Love Hormone” that helps mama and baby bond.
5. Induces a state of calm – When a baby latches to breastfeed, oxytocin and another hormone – prolactin – start flowing. Oxytocin helps with let down and is also associated with an increased sense of calm and lower stress levels. (2) (3)
How To Increase Oxytocin During Pregnancy
Later on we’ll talk about strategies that work anytime (pregnant or not), but number one on our list is pretty specific:
Yep, research has shown that they have oxytocin-like effects that help ripen the cervix, increase tolerance to pain, and reduce the risk of hemorrhage. (4)
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 works – when the fight or flight hormone (cortisol) goes up, oxytocin goes down. (5)
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:
2. Eat And Drink As Needed
Dr. Michel Odent, whose work I first became familiar with via the Happy Healthy Child DVD, “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.” (6)
3. Warm Water
Have you ever wondered how water birth became 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. (7)
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.” (8)
4. Create A Calm Environment
Instead of stressful bright lights and loudly beeping machines, most 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.
5. 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.” (Happy Healthy Child DVD)
6. Nipple Stimulation
When our nipples are massaged or stimulated by a baby’s latch, it triggers the release of oxytocin in the brain. (3) If labor slows down, some women find that nipple stimulation gets oxytocin flowing again.
Boosting Oxytocin After Birth
7. Skin-To-Skin Care
There are so many reasons to be skin-to-skin with your baby after birth – 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 from the Pituitary, which relaxes both you and baby.
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
- Snuggle your children
- Cuddle up with a pet
- Have sex
- Plan a girls night out and laugh with friends
- Share a meal with someone you love
- Give a gift
- Get a massage
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. ♥
Sources for this article:
1. Loh, H et. al. (1976) Beta-endorphin is a potent analgesic agent. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC430793/
2. Liu, Jianghong et. al. (2014) Breastfeeding and Active Bonding Protects against Children’s Internalizing Behavior Problems. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3916850/
3. World Health Organization (2009) Infant and Young Child Feeding: Model Chapter for Textbooks for Medical Students and Allied Health Professionals. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK148970/
4. Kordi, Masoumeh et. al. (2014) The Effect of Late Pregnancy Consumption of Date Fruit on Cervical Ripening in Nulliparous Women. Retrieved from http://jmrh.mums.ac.ir/article_2772_0.html
5. Heinrichs, M., Baumgarten et al. (2003). Social support and oxytocin interact to suppress cortisol and subjective responses to psychosocial stress. Retrieved from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14675803
6. Buckley, Sarah. (2005) Pain in Labour: Your hormones are your helpers. Retrieved from http://sarahbuckley.com/pain-in-labour-your-hormones-are-your-helpers-2
7. Odent, Michel. (2014) The Scientification of Love: Revised Edition.
8. Dahlen, Hannah. Oxytocin: The hormone of love and birth. Retrieved from http://www.pregnancy.com.au/resources/topics-of-interest/labour-and-birth/oxytocin-the-hormone-of-love-and-birth.shtml