28 Jan

Nature is Clever

Towards the end of my pregnancy, I remember being advised by friends that it was very important to get out as a couple as soon as possible after having the baby. I know this was coming from a well-intentioned place, but I’m glad I’m grounded enough to know that that wasn’t for me. Talking to new parents, I encounter a wide spectrum of parenting styles, and if you will allow me a sweeping generalisation, the ones who are having the easier time tend to be the ones who don’t put themselves under pressure to ‘get back to normal’ or ‘show the baby who’s in charge’ right from the start.

It may sound deeply obvious, but having a baby is a massive life event. It impacts on the couple as a couple and as individuals. Anthropologists have observed some interesting stuff about how the behaviour of men and women towards each other changes following the birth of a child; new mothers have a deep evolutionary need to remind our partners that they are responsible for us (for example, compulsively addressing him as ‘daddy’). Sorry, Old-Fashioned Feminists, but evolution takes thousands of years, and human behaviour (and biology) still works as though we live in clans with defined roles. My point is that pressure on a new couple to behave as if nothing has changed jars with our instincts and with the reality of life with a new baby.

Consumer-driven Twenty-first Century Western society, of course, has all the solutions for this. New parents can buy whatever they need to help create distance between themselves and this utterly dependent small creature: mechanical rocking chairs, under-mattress breathing detectors, artificial milk; there’s really no need to be at the beck and call of a baby, and it doesn’t do it any harm, does it?

I hate to talk about benefits and disadvantages. I prefer to talk about normal behaviour, biological expectations, and so on. Nature is very clever. Here’s an example: skin contact stimulates the release of oxytocin. What is oxytocin? It’s a hormone that makes you feel good. Remember orgasms? That’s oxytocin. Touching releases oxytocin; holding hands, kissing, nibbling someone’s ear, that all releases oxytocin. When your child grazes his knee and you kiss it better, that releases oxytocin. Oxytocin helps a woman to labour, and releases milk to feed her baby. Cuddling a newborn baby releases oxytocin. For both parties. Wrapping him up in a blanket and leaving him to cry himself to sleep in another room releases adrenaline, which suppresses oxytocin. For both parties.

Last week a couple came round for some help with feeding. It took a while to get mum and baby comfortable, but eventually we found a way [no surprises to anyone with any breastfeeding knowledge: mum reclined, baby self-attached]. The baby fed. Mum said: why does it make me feel so…. good? That’d be oxytocin, along with relief from anxiety and a sense of satisfaction.

Originally posted elsewhere on 2nd February 2011

20 Jun

Book Review: The Hormone of Closeness, by Kerstin Uvnas Moberg

The Hormone of Closeness: The role of oxytocin in relationships, is the second book I’ve read by Kerstin Uvnas Moberg on the subject of oxytocin, the hormone involved in childbirth, bonding and so much more.

Moberg posits an explanation of attachment theory wherein oxytocin underpins the child’s sense of security through enhanced wellbeing, increased calm, and a sense of satisfaction. She terms the innate and evolutionarily necessary need for closeness and contact with others as “skin hunger,” to equate it with hunger for food. This casts touch and its effects in a useful new light, showing how breastfeeding is about so much more than the transfer of milk, for the mother and the baby.

While much of the evidence in the book is drawn from lab studies on rats, her arguments are logical and compelling. Lay readers might skip the scientific stuff about what goes on in the brain, and read instead the fascinating description of the mother-baby relationship in the first place, which is then drawn into the wider context of our social interactions, stress levels, and the way we live.

Looking forward to the implications of the development of synthetic oxytocin, Moberg acknowledges that artificially increasing oxytocin levels, thereby increasing the tendency to trust, might not always be a good thing, particularly in a setting where we would not naturally be trusting. Evidently it would be better for the individual, and for society as a whole, to find natural ways to increase the world’s oxytocin levels. To illustrate this, she looks at the doula phenomenon, where a trusted woman present at birth can have a positive outcome, by allowing the birthing mother to tune into her body and allow levels of oxytocin to rise, facilitating labour and bonding with the new baby.

She finishes by looking at the possible consequences of our increasingly separate lives, and with a call on behalf of future generations to consider how to bring back social closeness, that “all of us on earth could live in peace and harmony with one another.” [p157]. This is an enlightening and affirming read.


To order The Hormone of Closeness with a 25% discount, just follow the link and use the discount code KH25 at the checkout.

[Disclosure: review copy provided by publisher]

08 Feb

Book Review: The Oxytocin Factor, by Kerstin Uvnas Moberg

On the whole, this is an interesting book exploring the magic of the hormone oxytocin, its widely varied effects, and the gaps in our knowledge about it.

The author describes the ‘calm and connection’ system, and contrasts this with the ‘fight or flight’ system, which has already been widely researched. She posits that modern life gives little opportunity for human beings to enjoy the various conditions of rest, relaxation, and pleasant interactions, which cause a natural increase in levels of oxytocin.

The book is divided into parts, and begins with an explanation of the physiological processes involved in the calm and connection system. All this makes a lot of sense, although much of it is based on research with rats.

The section on the effects of oxytocin is the most interesting part of the book. It shows that oxytocin increases sociability, curiosity and nurturing behaviour, and decreases anxiety and fear. It enhances recognition and calm, and alleviates pain. It improves the ability to learn; and, in different circumstances, either raises or lowers blood pressure. It moderates body temperature and enables a mother to moderate her baby’s body temperature. It regulates appetite and makes digestion more effective. It aids growth and healing, and the flow of breastmilk, and the contractions to birth our babies. All of these different effects have the result of enabling animals to grow and to reproduce.

The chapter on breastfeeding is fascinating. However I noticed here and elsewhere some remarks that I know are not supported by evidence, including that mothers who have had a c/section have more difficulties in breastfeeding, the assumption that colic is a stomach disorder, and the assertion that breastfeeding women must avoid alcohol. This leads me to wonder how much of the rest of the content of the book is actually based on real evidence of human experience and behaviour.

Certainly the final section of the book is almost entirely based on speculation about the gaps in our knowledge, and uncritically discusses the role of oxytocin in acupunture and other complementary medicine.

I found much that was useful in this book, particularly on the subject of bonding, and specifically in relation to fathers, which is very relevant for me in my work. However I found the speculation in the final chapters vague and disconnected. I was surprised, given the original assertion that modern life is not conducive to natural oxytocin release, to read that the author is looking forward to oxytocin being available as an drug that can be administered for various conditions. I had expected the book to conclude that human beings need to use our knowledge of natural oxytocin to engage in more behaviour, or create more circumstances, where oxytocin is naturally maximised; not just to pop a pill to achieve all those beneficial effects.


To order The Oxytocin Factor with a 25% discount, just follow the link and use the discount code KH25 at the checkout.

07 Sep

Guest post: Why I Love Oxytocin

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?

Well, it’s all orchestrated by this amazing chemical called oxytocin, which is often nicknamed ‘the love hormone’ – I’ll explain why later 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.