You’re in labour. Your baby will probably be born in a matter of hours, while your body will do the most incredible thing it’s ever done. But what is actually going on?
This fascinating hormone is coursing around your blood stream, telling your uterus to contract, which pulls your cervix up and open during the first stage of labour, and pushes your baby out during the second stage.
Every contraction sends a message to your brain to send more oxytocin, which causes another surge of power in what is now the largest muscle in your body. But even when your baby’s been born, oxytocin doesn’t just stop working! In fact, oxytocin is an important hormone in many other areas of our lives, not just labour.
Long before you even got pregnant, it’s likely you’ve had many a time made far more pleasant by its presence: it’s released in huge quantities in the weeks we’re falling in love; we get a boost of it whenever we have skin-to-skin contact with someone we care about; and we get a massive shot of it when we have an orgasm.
Oxytocin’s job in these situations is to help you form relationships and build trust between two people, hence the nickname ‘the love hormone’. Without it, you wouldn’t be able to fall in love.
So what causes it to be released? Well, apart from when you’re in labour, when it’s part of the amazing positive feedback loop I’ve already explained, it’s mostly that skin-to-skin contact with someone we care about that does the trick.
Even larger quantities are released if that skin-to-skin contact involves particular areas of your body which are super-sensitive to touch – ear-lobes, genitals, and nipples.
Which brings me back to your labour and birth. Your baby may well be born straight onto your tummy, skin-to-skin, which means more oxytocin. But – get this – your baby’s hands and face are likely to be near one of your nipples, so that gets a whole lot of touch too, stimulating even more oxytocin.
And as you haven’t quite finished the process of birth yet – your placenta still needs to be born – that oxytocin is really important because it keeps your uterus contracting so that the placenta can detach from the uterine wall and be pushed out of your body.
Of course, all that oxytocin is also helping you to fall in love with your baby and helping your baby, who is also getting an oxcytocic rush, fall in love with you. This is what we all call ‘bonding’.
As if the poor hormone didn’t have enough to do – making labour happen, helping you bond – it also has a vital role to play in breastfeeding. When you hold your baby close, and particularly when your baby is suckling at the breast, the resulting oxytocin causes the milk ducts within your breasts to open, and let the milk flow towards your nipple so that your baby can get to it. We call this a let-down, and breastfeeding doesn’t work without it.
So now you know why oxytocin is such an important, exciting hormone, and you know how to get more of it, so get cuddling!
Clare Kirkpatrick is a writer and a home educating mother of four girls. She is an NCT trained breastfeeding counsellor and is the editor of the liberating blog, Free Your Parenting. You can also follow her on Twitter: @clarekirkp and her Facebook page is at: facebook.com/freeyourparenting
Views expressed here do not represent the views of NCT.