Oxytocin. The love hormone, the contraction hormone, the milk ejection hormone. As lactation consultants this is the basic and necessary information, but what else is there to know about oxytocin that may help our practice?
Kerstin Uvnäs Moberg, author of several books about oxytocin and its importance and positive impact on different processes in the body, gave a two-hour lecture on the topic at the “Returning to Normal Physiological Birth. Growing the Practice of Normal Birth and Midwifery Led Care in Ireland” conference organised by midwives from Portiuncula Hospital.
Among other fascinating facts Moberg took us through the impact of labour and birth practices on oxytocin. During labour, oxytocin is released into both the blood and brain, Oxytocin has many positive effects in the mother’s brain during labour, and prepares her for motherhood. Oxytocin reduces anxiety, stress and pain in labour and switches on brain pleasure and reward centres, making the new mother relaxed, and happy as she meets her baby for the first time.
Oxytocin is activated by stimulation of sensory nerves. During labour this stimulation occurs when the baby’s head presses against the cervix. Epidural anaesthesia removes sensation ‘from the waist down’ for most people. Removing that sensation through epidural oxytocin plasma levels drop and labour contractions can slow down or even stop. The largest oxytocin peak experienced is during the last moments of birth as the baby passes through the vagina to be born. Women and birthing people who have epidural anaesthesia have a much-reduced peak; this obviously includes mothers whose babies are born by caesarean section. These babies also do less rooting. To offset this reduction in oxytocin as much as possible the ‘treatment’ is to increase interactions and skin to skin with mother and baby, not to separate as its often the case after surgical birth. Dyads may also need additional breastfeeding support as babies may not cue to be fed as often as needed.
Skin to skin contact after birth produces oxytocin in both mothers and babies. We know oxytocin as the ‘love’ hormone, one that makes parents and babies feel nice and loved up. However, its impact reaches far beyond this. Oxytocin acts on the dopamine receptors in the brain, activating our reward systems. Both parents and babies experience this and the more often and more regular the reward centre is activated the greater the long term impact. Oxytocin has capacity to shape human social behaviour and to enhance intricate social activities including pair bonding, while usually associated with couples the behaviours could also be applied to parent baby relationships. I found myself wondering is this an even greater reason to encourage skin to skin with fathers and non-gestational parents? If the other parent has regular skin-to-skin the baby will associate them with feeling good and happy and is more likely to accept them regularly as a comfort giving caregiver.
Oxytocin also has the ability to influence behavioural responses to social stimuli by increasing the prominence of social cues. Babies are highly salient to their mothers and the more opportunities for oxytocin release in both baby and parent the more attuned to each other they become. Oxytocin improves the detection and classification of positive social and emotional stimuli but not for negative stimuli and can blur negative memories and reduce stress in both infants and caregivers.
The positive effects of oxytocin are wide and varied with ongoing research into its impact on dopamine receptors and on social communication. I found the presentation fascinating and I feel there is a lot more amazing information on oxytocin to come as research expands into this area.
Niamh Cassidy, December 2021.
Niamh received a bursary of €100 from ALCI to attend the Returning to Normal Physiological Birth – Hormones & Birth Kerstin Uvnas Moberg webinar.