Oxytocin and How it Helps Labor


Oxytocin is commonly known as the “love hormone”.  When a pregnant woman feels safe, loved and in a trusting environment, her oxytocin levels will rise.  When oxytocin is released, it binds to the oxytocin receptors which can be found in the neural tissue in the central nervous system and in the smooth muscle cells of the uterus and mammary glands.  When the oxytocin binds to the receptors on these cells it will cause a rise in the calcium levels in the cell and cause contraction of the muscle in the uterus during labor.  In turn, the pressure of the baby against the cervix and the tissues in the pelvic floor will also stimulate oxytocin and contractions.  The hypothalamus and other areas of the brain will become more sensitive to the increased oxytocin levels, causing the body to become more receptive.  Oxytocin is essential in the process of labor and birth.  

The orbitofrontal cortex in the brain is equipped with the cognitive processing of decision making.  When it is activated, because it involves reasoning and logic, sensory and attention are heightened and adrenaline will increase and stress hormones such as catecholamines will rise.    This is why a laboring mother can become easily distracted by outside factors.  When action is taken to shut down the neocortex, the fight or flight response will not result.  The orbitofrontal cortex must be resolved and confronted with encouragement, advocacy and support to aid in the positive hormones that help labor instead of hinder it.  This will stop the cycle of stress.  When a laboring mother becomes frightened, worried, stressed or unsupported, labor can begin to fail to progress and contractions can become too hard to handle, which in turn the contractions can be present but not producing effective results.     

Studies of animals in the wild have concluded that a catecholamine release will cause the temporary shut down of labor.  This function enables the female animal to find a safe space to birth.  If she is feeling threatened or in danger, labor will stop and she can then find a place to resume where she is able to birth her offspring.  Humans also have the need to feel safe and protected in labor.  In the second stage of labor if artificial methods of induction or pain relief have been used, the fetal ejection-reflex in which more adrenaline is produced will cause the brain to produce more oxytocin so that heavier contractions can occur to birth the baby.  If this fetal ejection-reflex does not occur or may be interfered with, the labor may become more painful and difficult in which physicians may need to use instruments such as forceps or vacuum extraction during pushing. 

It is important for a laboring mother to feel safe, advocated and supported.  She may feel out of control of her body or distracted by nurses and doctors that she does not know.  Distractions such as bright lights and smells may cause her to feel uncomfortable.  Negative feedback from medical staff may also cause confusion or invasion of privacy.  Physiologic responses can result as a woman feels less safe and protected, which is referred to as the fight or flight mechanism. 

It is important to have a safe and supported team while in labor.  Pregnant women are quick to jump to reading pregnancy books that guide from week by week through pregnancy or creating baby registries for an upcoming shower.  While all these things are important and make pregnancy fun, having a birth team that supports and advocates for you is most important.  How we journey through labor into birth will hold lasting memories of labor and birth that one can never get back.  Birth is an unique and sacred moment.  A woman has a right to own her birth, to follow the process and to choose what is best for her body and her baby.  Knowing what our bodies are capable of can be empowering and educate us that natural birth is possible.  


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