Oxytocin, commonly known as the love hormone, is secreted by the hypothalamus, a part of the brain shared by all vertebrates.
While a lot of people hear of oxytocin for the first time in the context of childbirth, the hormone is actually involved in all kinds of intimate feel-good situations like nursing, sex or a really nice dinner with friends in a safe atmosphere.
The origin of the word “oxytocin” is Greek: ὀξύς (oxús, “swift”) + τόκος ( tókos, “childbirth”) Oxytocin helps make the childbirth swift, fast, fluid and smooth.
Oxytocin makes the uterus contract, slowly, gently, regularly, then progressively stronger and with shorter intervals as the labour progresses. Oxytocin also activates the brain’s pleasure and reward centres in preparation for bonding with the newborn baby.
The more relaxed and safe a person feels, the more this person will secrete oxytocin. It's a shy hormone so we need to respect and support the birth process, to hold space, for it to show up.
When non-human mammals are about to give birth, they first isolate themselves. The Bighorn ewe, for example, reaches the most inaccessible place in the mountain to feel safe. Nocturnal animals usually give birth during the day whereas diurnal animals prefer to give birth at night.
No wonder that when it comes to humans, the privacy of home seems to be the ideal setting to secrete the love hormone during child birth – while it is by no means the only one.
To facilitate natural oxytocin release in case of a hospital birth it's worth considering:
Staying at home in early labour as long as possible (except in case of complications)
Create or recreate a peaceful or familiar atmosphere (in the delivery room or in the recovery room)
How to support oxytocin release?
N.B.: We are all different, with a different cultural background, a different personal history and different phobias or traumas. Oxytocin is love, trust and consent. Only do what feels good, comfortable and right to you.
Dimmed lights: This is relaxing for the eyes. The neocortex (part of the brain that enables analysis, sensory processing, decision-making, reasoning, and problem-solving) can more easily switch to sleep mode. It also preserves the intimacy, the privacy of the birthing person. Candles can calm the mind and set up a warm and cosy atmosphere. In hospital, you can use electric candles.
Doors are closed and curtains are shut: nobody should come uninvited. The birthing person doesn’t feel observed, exposed (or listened to).
Trust: Knowing that each person present in the room supports you, respects you, listens to you, doesn't hurt you. You feel confidence in you, your baby, your body, your birth team.
Food and drinks: it is important to feel nourished and hydrated. Hunger and thirst don’t make us feel at peace. And if these food and drinks are delicious, bonus!
Elimination needs are met: How to totally let go if your bladder or bowels are full or ready to move? Free access to the toilet or simply allowing your body to release different types of fluids, is rather liberating.
Physical comfort: Loose clothes, no clothes at all, soft fabric, cushions, towels, peanut ball, all props are welcome to reach a nice and ergonomic position.
Feeling loved: Hugs and kisses, soft looks, sweet words.
Petting an animal. The company of your own dog, cat or other furry friend can be comforting. See how protective of you and your baby they can be.
Closeness to nature: walking barefoot in the grass, stroking the bark of a tree, feeling the sun kissing your hair, breathing the smell of fresh forest after the rain, letting the sand vanish between your fingers. If there is no nature around, natural elements can bring peace: seashells, stones, a feather, a flower.
All this procures the feeling (conscious or not) of being part of the universe, the history. This unexpected communion can bring unconditional comfort.
Silence, or at least no interview: Some words of encouragements and compliments can be welcome. Though, questions can become too much to process and force you to switch on your neocortex and burst your birth bubble.
5. All 5 senses are very receptive
Massage: Massage is a nice way to disconnect, let go, let the oxytocin flow.
Caress: Gentle and light touch all other the body.
Hair brushing or hair braiding: It feels so good to be taken care of. It can give goose bumps.
Nipple stimulation: this can simply been achieved by the birthing person, the partner, an older child breastfeeding or even a breast pump.
Clitoral stimulation: this can be performed by the birthing person, the partner, or with the help of a sextoy (waterproof if used in the tub). It is possible to ask privacy to the midwives in case of a hospital birth.
Warmth: The temperature of the room, a warm bag of wheat and a blanket and wooly socks if needed. If you have access to a sauna, you can also sit there and relax at a comfortable temperature for you. The idea is not to sweat but liberate tensions. Don’t use sauna if you have high blood pressure.
Water: Shower, tub, a bucket of warm water (about 37,5 degrees Celsius) falling on the shoulders and all along the back like a waterfall, the feeling of floating and defying the laws of gravity, can be ecstatic.
Agreeable smells: Lavender essential oil (with a carrier oil, on the skin), fresh flowers, pancakes, whatever brings positive thoughts or pleasant memories. It can also be the plush toy of your older child or your own bedroom pillow.
Nice taste in mouth: if you hungry and thirsty, eat and drink. Dark chocolate is a good relaxant. I encourage the use of coconut water, filled with electrolytes and an exotic island trip. If you are not thirsty: drink or suck ice. If you feel nauseous, peppermint can help: essential oil drops on an handkerchief or a pastil to suck. You can of course brush your teeth to keep fresh (and offer a chewing gum to your support person). I wouldn’t recommend a chewing gum during labour (it tends to develop tension in the jaws) but according to studies it can be beneficial right after birth (the digestive system is activated faster, the recovery is accelerated especially after a c-section.)
Silence brings clarity and transparence for most people. It brings serenity and calm.
For some people silence can create anxiety, brings back memories of loneliness or emptiness. For those people, and some others, music can help fill the room with a vibrant energy. Notes can be a gentle and non-invasive company. They can also support the 3 Rs in labour: Relaxation, Rhythm and Ritual. It can help entering the “labour transe”.
Lyrics can disturb if they differ from mantras. The idea is to let the brain rest, let the mind escape.
Hospital sounds can inhibit this evasion. Sensors can slide, monitors can beep and worry unnecessarily. The monitoring sounds can be shut while still recording the baby’s heartbeat. In most cases monitoring doesn't have to be on-going. Studies show that continuous foetal heart monitoring during labor (vs hands-on listening) increases the rate of c-sections.
At home, you have your marks and the place is yours, you feel free. You can decorate as much as you want, you reign in your realm.
In an hospital setting, the room is usually white, which brings calm and neutrality. But a few artefacts can make you act in a conditioned manner: if the first thing you see is a bed in the middle of the room, you might be tempted to lie on it as if it was expected from you. If the light is on, you might feel unauthorised to switch it off. If you are given an hospital gown you might feel owned by the institution you stepped in and unconsciously act in accordance to this idea. To be at ease and feel “at home” you are allowed to bring along personal items: your own nightgown, your socks, a picture of your grandmother, an amulet, a lucky charm, your electric candles, your ukulele or your hummus sandwich if you feel like it.
Sight is a sense that easily activates the neocortex, triggering memories or suggesting the interpretation of a vision. Closing the eyes or using an eye mask can help you stay in tune with your instinct.
6. Mammal instinct: your 6th sense awakes
The archaic brain rules: Thoughts can block the process. Let’s make room for intuition and spontaneity. The birthing person often develops a sort of omniscience during labour and birth. If sight becomes blurry or sounds become diffused, the birthing person feels the energies, the synergies and knows what is happening in the room.
Liberation of sounds: Feel free to express your emotions with sounds, mammal sounds.
Liberation of the body: Feel free to move, rock, dance, undulate, vibrate and shake. It is ok to lose control and let the process guide you.
What about synthetic oxytocin? Isn't that just the same? Natural oxytocin is stocked in the posterior pituitary gland and liberated in the blood stream, in a discontinued and pulsative way. Synthetic oxytocin is on the contrary administered intravenously (IV), and in constant, high doses, which can lead to maternal oxytocin levels that are more than double those in a physiological labour.
As a consequence, synthetic oxytocin causes contractions that are longer, stronger and closer together than the body would naturally produce. Synthetic oxytocin inhibits the secretion of endogenous (naturally produced) oxytocin. Although both synthetic and endogenous hormones share the same chemical structure, the synthetic one is not released in the brain so it doesn’t bring along the same soothing effect as the natural one. More info about the effects of synthetic oxytocin.