What Is Oxytocin? How the Love Hormone Helps Birth, Bonding, & Breastfeeding!

You’ve probably heard of it. It’s been called the love hormone, the hug hormone, and the bliss hormone.

But what is oxytocin, anyway?

What is oxytocin?

The oxytocin hormone is a vital ingredient for natural labor. It comes from the pituitary gland in your brain.

It’s your body’s magical way of facilitating the three B’s – birth, bonding, and breastfeeding!

Not only does it help with birth, but it facilitates breastfeeding and bonding with your new baby! Breastfeeding stimulates the release of oxytocin. And you need oxytocin to stimulate the production of breast milk.

It’s the all-around perfect hormone for birth, bonding, and breastfeeding!

Oxytocin in Labor and Birth

According to Ina May Gaskin, the nation’s leading midwife, in her book Ina May’s Guide to Childbirth:

“An intricate and exquisitely balanced combination of hormones is necessary to trigger all of the functions of labor and birth…”

Oxytocin is part of that balance. Here’s what oxytocin does during childbirth:

  • Eases stress and promotes feelings of calm.
  • Causes the uterus to contract and open the cervix.
  • Once much of Baby has passed through the vaginal canal, you get a surge of oxytocin to stimulate bonding, attachment, and “falling in love.”
  • After birth, oxytocin continues to stimulate contractions to discourage hemorrhaging.

What is Pitocin?

Now that you’re pregnant, you’ve probably heard of the synthetic version of oxytocin, called Pitocin, that you may receive in the hospital. It’s given in an IV in doses much larger than the tiny amounts of oxytocin your pituitary gland releases.




Say your water breaks, but hours later you’re still not having contractions. In the hospital, they may want to induce labor with Pitocin to stimulate contractions. Nurses will regulate how much Pitocin you’re getting, so you start having gradual contractions.

Keep in mind, Pitocin isn’t the perfect, synthetic solution for oxytocin.

In general, the synthetic version of anything isn’t going to be perfect.

Pitocin Vs. Oxytocin During Labor

There are many cases where the use of Pitocin is medically necessary to induce labor. Unfortunately, many women (and doctors) are opting to induce for convenience purposes. 

Educate yourself on your options and don’t let anyone tell you induction is your only option because you’re a week over your due date!

For many women, labor can be long and hard. That’s NORMAL! It’s not an emergency unless your pregnancy carries any risk. But as women, our bodies are made to give birth. We have all the tools we need. So why rush things when you have the strength and the will to get through it naturally?

When you go into spontaneous labor, your contractions increase gradually and naturally. With Pitocin, the contractions are stronger and come on a lot faster which means you’re not able to rest in between. During natural labor, the spaces between your contractions allow you to rest. Rest is crucial during labor. Removing your ability to rest just makes things harder.

And the idea of someone standing by your bed, turning up the intensity of your contractions by pumping more Pitocin in you seems a bit scary, doesn’t it? In labor the only person who should have control over your body is you!

Side Effects of Pitocin

Okay, this is where your pre-labor anxiety might kick in. But don’t let it get to you. Knowing what you’re up against is way better than going in blind.

Effects on Baby –

The use of Pitocin carries some risks for babies. There was a study performed on over 3,000 expectant mothers who delivered at full term from 2009 to 2011 and Pitocin induction was used. This study showed a significant increase in admissions to the NICU for more than 24 hours. They also found that the Apgar scores of those infants were lower than seven at five minutes.

The Apgar test is an evaluation of physical condition at 1 minute and 5 minutes after birth. They check baby’s vitals, skin coloration, grimace response, and muscle tone. A baby that scores at least an 8 is considered a healthy baby.

“However, we don’t want to discourage the use of Pitocin, but simply want a more systematic and conscientious approach to the indications for its use.” Dr. Michael S. Tsimis, primary investigator of this study.

The results of this study aren’t meant to scare you. We’re not saying you should go have your baby in a barn somewhere with no medical help. But Dr. Tsimis is right. We should take more care in deciding whether induction is necessary and to what extreme.

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Effects on Mom –

There can be side effects to Pitocin for the mother, and many of the more scary ones are rare. Here is a list of side effects you may experience (http://www.mayoclinic.org/drugs-supplements/oxytocin-intravenous-route-intramuscular-route/side-effects/DRG-20065254). Immediately let your doctor know if you experience any of these.

  • Confusion
  • Convulsions
  • Difficulty breathing
  • Dizziness
  • Fast or irregular heartbeat
  • Headache
  • Hives
  • Severe pelvic or abdominal pain
  • Rash or itching
  • Increased or continuous vaginal bleeding
  • Weakness
  • Rapid weight gain
  • Abdominal pain or cramping
  • Blood clotting problem that causes prolonged bleeding
  • Chest pain or discomfort
  • Cough
  • Difficulty swallowing
  • Extra heart beats
  • Fainting
  • Lightheadedness
  • Pounding or rapid pulse
  • Puffiness or swelling of the eyelids or around the eyes, face, lips, or tongue
  • Severe bleeding after birth
  • Shortness of breath
  • Tightness in the chest
  • Unusual tiredness or weakness
  • Wheezing

Symptoms of Pitocin overdose

  • Restlessness
  • Shakiness
  • Sleepiness
  • Slow to respond
  • Slurred speech
  • Unconsciousness

Some nausea or vomiting may occur during treatment. These aren’t usually serious side effects but if they persist, let your doctor know.

Pitocin and Postpartum Depression –

Pitocin can raise your risk of postpartum depression (http://www.motherrisingbirth.com/2017/02/pitocin-is-linked-to-postpartum-depression.html). If you have a history of anxiety and depression, the risk is increased by 36%. If you don’t have a history, that percentage goes down to 32%. It’s a little lower but still not very encouraging.

As if those numbers weren’t scary enough, consider all the women not accounted for. Think of all the women that weren’t diagnosed or those that didn’t even seek help. Many women won’t ask for help, or they’re told it’s just a part of new motherhood.

But if you’re feeling depressed or anxious and that’s not normal for you, your feelings are valid…and they could be because of the Pitocin!

Pitocin is different from oxytocin in many ways. It may be able to speed up labor, but when used for convenience it may be a short-term fix resulting some real long-term costs.

Pitocin and Breastfeeding –

According to the Journal of Perinatal Education (https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1595228/):

“Pitocin, unlike naturally occurring oxytocin, does not cross the blood/brain barrier. As a result, the pituitary is not stimulated to release endorphins. Without the pain-relieving help of abundant endorphins, women who are induced with pitocin are more likely to require epidurals. Whenever an epidural is given and all pain is removed, naturally occurring oxytocin levels drop…”

Lower oxytocin levels mean less bonding, less stress relief, and a higher risk of your milk coming in late (http://www.bestforbabes.org/booby-traps-series-obstetrical-practices-are-making-late-milk-coming-in-the-new-normal/). For many women, late milk tells them there’s something wrong with their body, and they can’t breastfeed.

Nothing’s more heartbreaking than wanting to bond with your baby in the best way and having that ability taken away from you before they’re even born. Talk to your doctor about all these risks and concerns before allowing a Pitocin induction.

Increasing Oxytocin Naturally to Induce Labor

If you’re a little past your due date and your midwife/doctor is comfortable with you naturally inducing labor, here are some ideas. 

  • Sex: Intimacy and just being close to your partner can increase oxytocin. But orgasm is the primary goal with this method.
  • Massage: Relaxation is so important for the production of oxytocin. Stress and tension can stall labor. Get a gentle massage and let your body and mind relax.
  • Nipple Stimulation: This is a pretty standard one. Stimulating the nipples releases oxytocin, causing your uterus to contract. 
  • De-stress!: This one is most important. Practice meditation and breathing exercises. Take a walk on a beautiful day. We all have ways of relieving stress, so do what you know helps you relax. You’ll go into labor when your body is ready.

Oxytocin and Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding isn’t typically something you just pick up and become a pro at. It is the most natural way to feed your baby, but if you don’t have the right mindset and support system, it can be hard.

Many women are shamed for even considering breastfeeding. There aren’t enough resources out there to empower women to breastfeed. And there aren’t sufficient resources to educate women on it.

Because of a lack of support and encouragement, many women give up on breastfeeding thinking it’s their fault!

If you’re determined to breastfeed, you should know how Oxytocin relates to breastfeeding.

When your baby latches onto your breast, it sends a message to your brain to start producing oxytocin. This starts the let-down reflex. The muscles around the glands in your breast that produce milk begin to contract. Then the glands contract and squeeze the milk out of your breast to your baby.

Breastfeeding is the ultimate way to bond with your baby. Some fathers even feel left out because they’re not able to have that kind of closeness with their baby. Can you blame them?

Here are some of the effects oxytocin may have on you while breastfeeding:

  • Make you feel sleepy and relaxed
  • Raise your body temperature
  • Make you thirsty
  • It can even cause a headache

Oxytocin can even trigger the letdown reflex when you’re not breastfeeding. Even if you just think about it or hear your baby cry, your breasts may start leaking.

So what do you do with all this information?

Don’t panic! Birth and breastfeeding are natural occurrences, not medical emergencies. Women have been doing both for hundreds of thousands of years. Your body was made to do it. It’s one of the reasons your body makes oxytocin in the first place!

As you prepare for birth, save up for a lactation consultant. As you get closer to birth, discuss all the risks of any medical procedure (including Pitocin induction) with your care provider before consenting to it. 

And when expectant moms ask you, “What is oxytocin?” Tell them – it’s your body’s way of helping you through birth, bonding, and breastfeeding!

 

Sources:

Mayoclinic.org

acog.org

Motherrisingbirth.com

Livescience.com

Quora.com

Medicalnewstoday.com

verywell.com

Featured image source: exhaltbirthservices.com

Reese

Reese Leyva is a first-time mom whose countless hours of reading about and researching pregnancy, birth, and gentle/respectful parenting have led her to one inevitable conclusion - moms and babies are amazing! When she's not writing or studying to complete her certification as a Childbirth Educator, she's playing in the dirt with her super cool infant daughter or cooking alongside her nifty artist husband.
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