It’s very interesting to me how our own bodies provide a lot of what we need by way of the hormones we produce. Environmental or genetic factors can either help promote or inhibit hormone levels. When hormone levels are functioning optimally, the body functions better.
This is never more true than when a mother is giving birth to her baby.
The hormone at the very center of it all is oxytocin. Oxytocin is released by the pituitary gland and is what causes the uterus, the bag of muscles where your baby lives, to contract when you’re giving birth. Oxytocin, known as “the love hormone,” also helps to facilitate bonding with your new baby, which will then also help the uterus continue contracting so that the placenta can be released from the body.
When all of this is going on, the oxytocin also helps trigger the milk ejection reflex. We get big boosts of oxytocin when the baby is crowning (on the perineum) and nearing birth, and again when the placenta releases and is born. We get short and powerful bursts of oxytocin during the birthing process. When we are being stimulated by light massage and touch, and also when love and laughter is present in the room, these factors help to create endorphins, which are promoted by – you guessed it – oxytocin. Endorphins, secreted within the brain and the nervous system, are nature’s pain relief. Yay!
Melatonin is released in dark, quiet settings and is inhibited by interruption. Melatonin is produced by the pineal glad which is also located in the brain. While melatonin’s main job is to regulate sleep/wake cycles, it also helps regulate the reproductive cycle.
On the flip side, adrenaline increases the heart and breathing rates and is released when fear and stress are present. Adrenaline is secreted by the adrenal glands, which are located on top of each kidney, and excess production can inhibit oxytocin. Think about trying to have sex under bright lights and with visitors watching. Think it might be difficult to have an orgasm? Mmm hmm.
Like oxytocin, prolactin is also released from the pituitary gland. Prolactin stimulates milk production after birth and is complementary to oxytocin. The pituitary gland is the size of a pea and is located at the base of your brain. I also find it interesting that when you attend my Hypnobabies class, you’ll learn what’s called the lightswitch technique. When we do this exercise, we ask you to visualize your lightswitch at the base of your brain. Self-hypnosis for childbirth is incredibly complementary to allowing all of these hormones to flow freely, particularly those which are released in the brain.
You should also know that the synthetic form of oxytocin, called Pitocin, is used frequently in hospital labor & delivery units and is given via IV. What’s in the IV does not enter the brain (so is unable to cause feelings of euphoria or facilitate bonding). It also carries potential risk for mom and baby. Morphine and other forms of artificial pain relief can block natural oxytocin (just like adrenaline) and may also have side effects.
Does this mean that women who use medications during childbirth cannot breastfeed or bond with their babies? Certainly not, but it does mean that the mother’s natural ability to do so may be slowed down or stopped. So if you don’t plan on using medications but decide to change plans, please give yourself added grace as you and your baby get the hang of breastfeeding. (The same goes for any mother who has difficulty breastfeeding!)
You will still produce plenty of milk, but it may take a couple of extra days to get your baby in a good gaining pattern. Your baby will be fine until things get back on track. If someone recommends formula for achieving the same purpose, your supply could decrease because the baby is receiving nutrients from a different source. If your baby is well-latched and not causing you pain, then feed on! If the latch needs help, find a local IBCLC or a midwife or doula who can point you in the direction of one.