The female body was designed to give birth and is equipped with the hormones to do so, writes Lynne Bluff, national co-ordinator for the Childbirth Educators’ Professional Forum.
Introducing the stars of our show – the hormones that encourage mothering behaviours – oxytocin, endorphins, catecholamines and prolactin all waiting to perform an intricate routine, each bringing its own style to the dance of labour.
Oxytocin takes the lead, guiding you with love and connection, while catecholamines excite and energise you. Endorphins help you navigate through the daring twists and turns, and nurturing prolactin will be there at the dazzling finish to welcome your baby.
Let’s begin with oxytocin, which is released by the pituitary gland. It waltzes through the bloodstream to make the uterus contract. It is also a neurotransmitter, an amazing, signalling substance released into your nervous system to help you give birth with confidence.
During labour, oxytocin in the nervous system increases our pain threshold, reduces muscle tension and our response to stress. It keeps us calm and warm. We trust, and are open to touch and encouragement from our support people. Oxytocin encourages us to be intuitive and daring.
For a good labour dance, we want lots of oxytocin released. It is released in response to companionship, rhythmic stroking, warmth, quiet and low light, pleasant sounds and smells, good food, positive thoughts, associations and visualisations.
As labour progresses, pressure against our perineal floor, causes more oxytocin and a touch of catecholamines to be released, urging us to bear down and birth our baby. Oxytocin expels the placenta, slows bleeding, and warms your chest and belly to shelter your baby.
When your new baby nuzzles your breast, oxytocin bonds you and baby together and sends forth milk while another hormone, prolactin, joins the dance. Meaning “for milk”, prolactin rises suddenly after birth in response to your baby’s suckling, touch and smell.
Prolactin, oxytocin and endorphins all have a calming effect on you and your baby. Your baby is wide-eyed and alert and seeks your warmth and gentle touch. Released in pulses, prolactin levels rise and stay highest with lots of skin to skin and frequent nursing.
Oh, yes, endorphins! Another wonder hormone and neuro-transmitter a sort of home-made morphine, released in response to stress. Endorphins reduce our pain perception and take us to “labour land” where we feel safe and intuitive, yet focused on the task of giving birth.
Endorphins are released in response to comfort measures such as music, warm water, touch, deep breathing, rhythmic movement, self-hypnosis and visualisation. Increasing throughout pregnancy, rising in labour and peaking at birth, endorphins are our safety net against stress.
When our bodies are alarmed, we release stress hormones called catecholamines, which prepare our body to protect itself. Our pulse and breathing quicken and our muscles are ready to move. Our pupils dilate so we can see better. We act without thinking.
Wonderfully, stress in labour is eased by endorphins, estrogen and oxytocin. They partner together to slow the frenzy and bring your body back into rhythm with your contractions, so that are working with it, not fighting it.
The hormones that help you most come from the middle part of your brain the sensing, feeling part. Not the cortex. You need to feel labour, experience the dance. How do we do that? You begin by trusting that your body already knows the steps.
Let labour begin on its own. Move freely to the sensations of your body. Bring encouraging people to hold you when the dance is hard. Listen to your internal beat not an artificial one. Finish strong and keep your baby close so that she can feel your rhythm too.
Choose an environment that will help the dance hormones to flow. We produce the most oxytocin and endorphins when we are in a quiet, safe and warm place with people we trust.
Some caregivers want to choreograph your labour with bed rest, continuous monitors, IVs. These restrict movement and help from our support team. Labour slows. The dancers lose step. We become afraid and start to rely on more interventions, like Pitocin, to show us the way.
But induction with synthetic Pitocin is not labour. Yes, it does make your uterus contract but it cannot connect with the receptors in your nervous system. Intravaneous Pitocin turns off brain oxytocin and you lose its protective effects. Your body doesn’t recognise this music.
The pain becomes intense and you ask for drugs or an epidural. These can reduce your pain and your natural endorphins.
Now you must finish the dance without your normal hormone partners. Catecholamines rise. Your new partner is technology.
We call this a cascade a waterfall of interventions, normal labour is swept away. If the dance stops completely, a caesarean may be needed to birth your baby. Is this what you want?
Labour takes courage, stepping out with patience and trust, letting others support you, being active and staying upright to keep the hormones flowing. And finally, snuggle your baby close. Then you have danced with the stars.
* To find a childbirth educator in your area and for more information on Pregnancy Education Week (20-24 February 2017):