How Hormones Make or Break Your Birth
When it comes to birth there is A LOT going on in your body. You can probably easily acknowledge contractions, cervix dilating, descent of your baby, rotation of the baby into position and the bearing down as your body pushes the baby out.
They are all the things we can easily see and feel during birth. But there is also so much going on, behind the scenes as it were. What makes all of this stuff happen?
You might have heard about oxytocin. Oxytocin is also known as the love hormone because it is linked with romantic attachment, sex, feelings of safety and trust. Oxytocin levels are high when you feel all warm and fuzzy and safe.
When it comes to birth, oxytocin is a key player. It is oxytocin that stimulates the contractions of the uterus that cause the cervix to dilate, the uterine muscle to thin at the bottom and thicken at the top to push baby down. Without oxytocin contractions don’t really happen or won’t be very effective. It is a hormone released in the brain, in the pituitary gland, and it forms part of a cocktail of hormones that work together to make birth happen.
When birth is described it might be an undisturbed version that we hear about. One where the woman is in a safe place, no distractions, no interference, maybe a quiet support person but essentially just her and her baby doing their thing. It is in this way that we truly understand how all the mechanisms come together and make birth happen.
One of the hormones that is part of the process are endorphins. These are natural pain killers released in the body and they are also ‘feel good’ hormones. Oxytocin and endorphins are part of the reason we can cope with labour far better than we might imagine. Although the uterus is working hard and the sensations can be intense the hormone combination means it can stay manageable (other techniques such as breathing and relaxation really help too).
So we know that in order for labour to progress well we need oxytocin levels to be high. In short this means being somewhere safe with people who are trusted so that the woman can relax, switch off and let her body do its thing free from distraction or anxieties. In reality most people birth in a hospital with strangers. You might feel very sure that the hospital is the safest place for you but it doesn’t mean you feel as relaxed and comfortable as you do in your own home or after a day at the spa. You might also be happy to trust the people looking after you but usually this is the first time you meet them, so essentially they are strangers.
Why do these things matter?
The enemy of oxytocin is adrenaline. If your adrenaline levels are high oxytocin doesn’t work too well. It is a simple protective mechanism. When it comes to birth the hormones are pretty primitive, and on a primitive level, high levels of adrenaline means a threat of some kind – a reason why it isn’t safe to continue the birthing process.
Why? Well adrenaline is the hormone responsible for the flight or fight response and if something is happening which needs that response then the last thing to do is have a baby. So to be safe your body slows down the birthing process.
Adrenaline levels can rise for all sorts of reasons. Although you feel that you want to be in hospital the unfamiliar environment, people, noises, smells, bright lights etc may well trigger the fight flight response. Its why you might find dim lighting in your room, fairy lights, calming pictures or words – making it a place you can relax.
Your adrenaline might be a bit higher because you are tired or hungry or thirsty. Look after yourself in labour, it really matters.
When you are preparing for birth these are things to think about. It might be a factor when you decide your place of birth – labour ward, midwife led unit or home? You might recognise that the best place for you is the one where you feel safest and most comfortable and not necessarily the one you or those around you would consider right.
How will you stay relaxed? Music, breathing, massage, eye mask, your support team, quiet or distraction?
Whatever you plan to do, practice it. When I teach Birthing classes we practice breathing with gentle music, (fake) candlelight and the calm atmosphere you want to create. The more you practice in this way the more your body links the feelings of relaxation with breathing, with your playlist or whatever else you are using.
Your hormones really can impact your birth and you can help them to work effectively. Just make sure you know how.