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The Love Hormone


Oxytocin – the Love Hormone, the most vital hormone of birth

Going into labour is like falling asleep…

Labour is a different state of being, a state of being with a lot of

similarities to sleep. For a start, they are both states that cannot be

forced. They just happen! Sometimes when we least expect it. We

cannot decide or control the moment when we fall asleep. We can

also not decide or control the moment when we “fall into labour.” But

we can make it difficult for both to happen easily and most effectively.

Labour is like sleep because we need the same conditions to “fall into

labour” as we need to “fall asleep.” We need to feel safe and warm

and relaxed. We need to be in a place in which we feel comfortable,

and we need to be free from pressure, anxiety or fear.


When a woman is in labour she releases a hormone called oxytocin.

Oxytocin is the hormone that makes the uterus contract during labour.

It is also the hormone of love.

Oxytocin is the hormone we release when we are enjoying a meal,

or having a stimulating conversation. It is the hormone we release

when we are making love and when we orgasm. It is the hormone

that makes us feel in love, and it is the hormone that releases the milk

when a mother is breastfeeding.

Isn’t it amazing that it is the love hormone that brings the baby into

the world?

How does oxytocin work?

Oxytocin is a shy hormone….

Oxytocin needs to feel comfortable before being released. Since it is

the love hormone this makes sense. When we are feeling in love we feel

safe. Love is not something that is easy to feel when we are in danger.

Oxytocin is a fussy hormone. Everything needs to be just right for this

hormone to want to make an entrance. The more comfortable the

environment and the more relaxed the labouring woman, the more

her oxytocin will be able to flow.

A sense of security

The labouring woman needs to feel secure and safe. Mammals will find

a secure place to give birth. A wonderful example is female elephants

who will form a circle around the labouring mother elephant with their

backs turned to her.

If a labouring mammal feels threatened her labour will stop until she is in

a safe place again. Human beings are not that different physiologically.

We also are mammals after all. While many women choose to give

birth in hospitals because they feel it is their safest option, they may

find that when they arrive at the hospital their bodies react in a way

which tells us that they are not feeling safe in that environment. The

bright lights, the talking, the signing of papers, the questions, having

to interact with strangers, the ticking clock, the cold sterile rooms, the

high beds, the lack of privacy, the foetal heart monitors…these can

all contribute to a feeling of being unsafe. This may make it difficult for

oxytocin, the shy hormone, to makes its appearance. One can then

anticipate a longer and more difficult labour.

How do other mammals prepare for birth? They will find a quiet, dark

place, far away from anyone, somewhere where they will feel safe

and secure and know that they will be undisturbed.

A woman at the end of her pregnancy is much the same. We

joke about the ‘nesting instinct’ when a woman at the end of her

pregnancy frantically cleans her home in preparation for the birth.

Some women cannot rest until the curtains are hung just right or the

floors are scrubbed or all her affairs are put to rest. Doing this makes it

possible for them to feel ready to have their baby

The thinking brain needs to switch off

One of the prime ingredients for shy oxytocin to take effect is that

the thinking brain needs to switch off. We need to make sure that the

labouring woman’s thinking brain (called neo-cortex) is not


We stimulate the neo-cortex during labour by talking to the labouring

woman about logical things, such as telling her how many centimetres

dilated she is, or asking her to remember when her waters broke. We

stimulate her neo-cortex with these observations and questions, and

as a result we slow down her release of oxytocin.

A woman needs to be able to slowly fall into her labour (like falling

asleep) and not be ‘woken up’ by the outside world. If she can be

given the space to switch off her neo-cortex, oxytocin will be able to

do its job.

No observers

Feeling observed also stimulates the neo-cortex, so it is important

that the mother does not feel watched. Observers and unnecessary

people make the mother feel observed. Cameras can also slow

labour down because they can make a mother feel observed which

will “wake her up.”


It is important that there are no bright lights around a labouring

woman. Drawn curtains, candles and other dim lighting will help to

suppress the thinking brain and aid in the stimulation of oxytocin.


The labouring woman needs to be warm. A fire or a heater or

warm water is helpful in relaxing her body and her neo-cortex. In

fact, immersing herself in warm water at the right time (when she is

in established active labour) can relax the mother so much that her

cervix will dilate completely.

Oxytocin/adrenaline antagonism

Adrenaline prevents oxytocin from being released.

Adrenaline is the hormone we produce when we are frightened, anxious, stressed or cold.

It is known as the ‘fight or fright’ hormone.

Adrenaline suppresses oxytocin. It can completely stop labour or

make the labour longer and more painful.

Anyone who is present at a birth needs to very aware of his or her

levels of adrenaline. This is because adrenaline is contagious, which

means that if you are feeling anxious or scared or nervous, everyone

else in the room will soon start feeling that way too. If you are at a birth

and you are feeling tense or nervous or scared, try to calm yourself

down. If you can’t, it will serve the mother better if you leave the room

until you are feeling better.

Have a look around and see how the other people in the room are

behaving. If you can see that someone is feeling uncomfortable, you

can gently let that person know that it is okay for him or her to take a

break and perhaps leave the room, or go for a walk, or try to have a

sleep. This must be done in a gentle and non-aggressive way because

if you get angry or make someone else angry you will create more


Sometimes people are relieved to be told that they can take a break

from the birth. A birth is a very intense experience, which can be very


The baby, when he or she is ready to be born,

will send a message that tells the mother’s body that it is ready.

The mother’s body can then begin labour by slowly releasing oxytocin,

the hormone of love.

The mother and baby work together to bring the baby into the world.

This is an extract from South African midwife Ruth Ehrhardt’s  book The Basic Needs of a Woman in Labour which is available through Amazon, Loot or directly through her website


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