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
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.
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.
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 truemidwifery.com