February is the month of love. The perfect time to talk about oxytocin, also referred to as the “love hormone”. Oxytocin gets its name for the role it plays in intercourse, fertility, contractions during labour and birth, and the release of milk in breastfeeding. During labour this “love hormone” stimulates powerful contractions, which causes your cervix to thin and dilate in order to give birth to your baby. There are many ways to increase oxytocin in labour naturally. A heated topic of debate is the use of a drug called Pitocin, which was created to mimic oxytocin. Although Pitocin was created to work like oxytocin, it functions differently in our body.
You may have heard care providers use the term oxytocin and Pitocin interchangeably, or refer to them as the same thing. They may seem the same but they work differently. Oxytocin is a hormone created naturally in your body, whereas Pitocin is the synthetic drug created to mimic oxytocin. How do they work differently? Oxytocin never shows up to the party alone. It invites friends, more specifically calming and pain relieving hormones known as endorphins. These endorphins increase during your labour to allow you to cope and flow with the surges. Pitocin is a bit of a loner when it shows up to the party. It doesn’t bring anyone with it. Instead of contractions coming on slowly and allowing your body to adjust to the surges on a more gradual level, contractions with Pitocin may come on quicker, stronger, and feel more painful. Without our friends (endorphins) to tag along, our bodies struggle to stay calm and navigate through the surges of labour. It’s a shame Pitocin doesn’t have more friends like oxytocin.
So in what circumstances might we need Pitocin? Your care provider may suggest Pitocin for a number of reasons.
- Labour has not begun on its own
- You have been stuck at 5cm for hours and hours
- An epidural may have caused contractions to slow down or stall
- Augmentation is required because the membranes have broken but contractions do not start
Pitocin isn’t always unnecessary, but it does change how you will labour. If you can avoid Pitocin and get that oxytocin flowing naturally it can really benefit your labour and birth.
How can we get oxytocin flowing in a momma in labour? Lots of ways! It’s as simple as touching or hugging someone. Hugging someone you love will release oxytocin. I encourage couples to slow dance and hold each other during contractions. This closeness with the one you love is really beneficial, as are hand holding and kissing, even finding a quiet spot to fit in a smooch or two. Music, soothing music during labour can help you feel calm and relaxed and keep the “love” flowing. Laughter, if you can find a way to laugh throughout your labour this is key, not just for the oxytocin factor but to help relax those tense muscles. Deep breathing stimulates our relaxation response which allows for our “feel good” hormone (oxytocin) levels to increase. Massage and other forms of touch will allow for positive feelings and decreased pain. Even during nipple stimulation, oxytocin is released in the body. Nipple stimulation is gently rubbing or rolling the nipples, or suckling the nipple. This technique is often used to try to induce labour naturally. Don’t worry, it’s generally not your doula doing the stimulation. Oxytocin is also a very important hormone to breastfeeding. It allows the milk ejection reflex to occur, otherwise known as the “let down”. When you are breastfeeding, the oxytocin stimulates uterine contractions that help contract and return your uterus to its pre-pregnancy size. This love hormone is released when we breastfeed our babies. It helps us to bond and fall in love with them.
Pitocin vs. Oxytocin is a great debate that is talked about a lot in the birth community. This article is not really about the great debate but more about how to get the best experience from your birth. I believe using natural ways to get oxytocin flowing in your body is a great start! So my friends, LOVE ON!