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The importance of pregnancy and birth hormones - how they can help (and hinder!)

Updated: Feb 19

Hormones play a huge part during pregnancy, labour, birth - and postnatally. There is a very natural flow of hormones (chemical messages) between both mother and baby, throughout the process of labour and birth that, if undisturbed, can enable things to go smoothly and safely.

Many people underestimate how much of an effect hormones can have on birth, or don’t realise how beneficial most of them can be - and that they can be influenced and encouraged, to help labour and birth to happen naturally and smoothly.

Fascinatingly, men also experience changes in hormones during this time, for example a drop in testosterone the day after their baby is born, which in turn allows an increase in oxytocin and dopamine and encourages the desire for providing stability and safety for their new baby!

There are so many hormones involved that can affect labour and birth – but there are 4 main ones that we’ll focus on here. They are:

  • Oxytocin (the love hormone)

  • Beta-Endorphins (the hormones of pleasure)

  • Adrenalin and noradrenaline (the flight or fight hormones)

  • Prolactin (the mothering hormone)

So ... Let’s start with the most common one – Oxytocin

Also known as the ‘love’ hormone, this hormone is often underrated and yet SO powerful! It has a key role in labour, as it helps bring on birth contractions and is released in pulses from the hypothalamus every few minutes during labour, increasing in production as labour progresses. It plays a huge role in sexual activity, childbirth and breastfeeding.

If a mothers brain perceives that the environment is safe and conducive to labour in and give birth, it releases more oxytocin which in turn alerts receptors in the uterus to cause it to contract. Equally, should a mother feel threatened or in danger during the birth process (and this can happen with a sudden change of scenery, perhaps transitioning from labouring at home to arriving at the hospital), the fight or flight system is alerted (more on that below!) and contractions can slow right down. So it is important to keep things as calm and safe as possible and keep that oxytocin flowing!

During labour, this hormone can be used synthetically for induction, if labour is not progressing as expected. This is something that can be assessed at the time of labour, and you don't always have to agree to induction, if everything else is going well and the baby is doing ok (informed choice is key here!), but there are many ways to naturally build oxytocin levels.

The main way to encourage oxytocin is by helping the birthing mother feel safe, held, loved, and supported. Touch, presence, warmth, feeling heard and keeping as calm as possible all impact oxytocin production hugely. Studies indicate that oxytocin is also involved in cognition, tolerance, and adaptation, imperative for adjusting to life with a new baby, and for babies adjusting to life outside the womb. Oxytocin also triggers nurturing feelings and behaviours which are of course very important at this time.

It has also recently been found that oxytocin also acts as a cardiovascular hormone, helping to slow the heart rate and reduce blood pressure.

Oxytocin levels tend to be very high in both the mother and the newborn immediately after delivery and levels peak at around thirty minutes after birth. During the first hour after birth, both mother and baby are saturated with these high levels of oxytocin, further assisting with bonding and feeding. Newborn babies continue to have elevated levels of oxytocin for at least four days after birth, and oxytocin is also present in breastmilk.

What is Beta-Endorphin?

This is a naturally occurring hormone that works similarly in the brain to opiates such as morphine, and helps to reduce pain during birth as well as also induce feelings of pleasure, elation and happiness in the mother.

Beta-endorphin also plays an important role in bonding between mother and baby, (who also produces their own endorphins from the birth process). It can increase feelings of dependency between both mother and baby.

Beta-endorphin levels in the mother's bloodstream increase throughout labour, peaking at the time of birth, then gradually reducing post birth. It helps to create a calm feeling for your newborn, to help them adjust to life outside the womb.

Beta-endorphin also plays a very important role in breastfeeding. Levels peak again in the mother twenty minutes after breastfeeding starts, and the hormone is also present in breastmilk, which can help explain why babies are so comforted by breastfeeding, and naturally relax at the breast or after a feed. Beta-endorphin also helps the body release prolactin which is essential for breastfeeding (more on that below).

And yet another interesting fact - beta-endorphin also helps us with learning and memory, which can go some way to explaining why we remember labour and birth in such intricate detail!

The Adrenaline HIGH - Adrenaline and Noradrenaline

We all know how adrenaline makes us feel – we’ve all been in situations where that kicks in, whether you’re on a rollercoaster ride, have experienced a sudden fright, high anxiety, hunger or extreme cold. You may have been in any number of situations that makes your heart rate increase drastically, as your adrenaline and noradrenaline levels naturally shoot up, to activate your sympathetic nervous system and enable your body to go into ‘fight or flight’ to ensure survival, and give you the ability to fight off impending danger, or run away from it.

Women who feel threatened during labour, perhaps by fear or severe pain will produce higher levels of adrenaline, which can slow labour or even stop it altogether. In early human evolution, this ability to halt or ‘pause’ labour would have helped birthing women move to a place of greater safety, to enable them to birth their baby without additional risk.

So as you can see, this hormone can counteract the birthing process as it can slow it down, so the best thing you can do to avoid this is to keep the oxytocin flowing as best you can (safety, love, calmness) and reduce - where possible - scenarios that could increase stress and therefore adrenaline levels.

However, it's also a hormone present to help get you through the labour process. Often at the end of stage one of labour (cervix fully dilated) and before stage two (pushing), there is a period of transition. During this time, if the labour has been relatively undisturbed, birthing women will often experience a surge of adrenaline and noradrenaline which will create a rush of energy, strength and alertness. There is often a mixture of fear, and/or excitement, and this surge of adrenaline, along with high oxytocin levels can create several very strong contractions that can birth the baby quickly and easily.

Babies also experience increased levels of adrenaline as labour and birth is an exciting (though stressful) event for them. This often means that the baby is wide-eyed and alert at birth and during first contact with the parents but that levels will then also drop rapidly (after an undisturbed birth), by being soothed and held, or fed. Noradrenaline levels remain elevated above normal for the first twelve hours post birth however. High newborn noradrenaline levels have been shown to enhance olfactory learning which helps the newborn to learn the mother's smell.

And Prolactin – how does that help?

Well – this one is your ’nesting’ or ‘mothering’ hormone, and it increases before you have your baby, which is when everyone commonly refers to the ‘’nesting’’ period. It’s where you go into ‘sort out’ mode, preparing everything to get ready for baby, similar to when animals prepare to give birth and find a safe hide out to deliver their offspring. It is thought that this ‘nesting’ instinct may be due to an increase in levels of prolactin. Interference with the ‘nest’ — or more importantly with the feeling of safety — can delay the beginning of labour - in both animals and humans.

It may also play a role in helping the newborn adjust to life outside the womb and supports healthy development.

Prolactin production also continues after birth!

Prolactin is produced in the pituitary gland during pregnancy and lactation. It is named for its prolactation effects, preparing a pregnant woman's breasts for lactation (breastfeeding) and it is central to breastmilk production.

Prolactin levels increase throughout pregnancy, helping to prepare expectant parents for the arrival of the new baby. They then decline in the mother during labour, to the lowest level at full dilation and then rise again rapidly, immediately after birth and reach peak levels in the first 2-3 hours after birth.

It is sometimes also named 'the hormone of paternity.' Some human studies have shown that just before birth, male partners experience elevated prolactin levels themselves, which mirror the rise of prolactin in their birthing partners and trigger the desire to care for and protect their newborn. New fathers with higher prolactin levels are more responsive to their newborns cries.

Carrying babies close can also increase prolactin levels for any parent, so keep them close and perhaps consider investing in a sling - as well as this, lots of skin to skin time increases production of prolactin, oxytocin and endorphins - all wonderful hormones that have huge impacts on bonding, attachment, happiness and elation.

If you would like to learn more or join my Hypnobirthing classes, where we cover the role of hormones and how to use them to influence labour and birth positively, please do not hesitate to get in touch, or visit the Hypnobirthing page on my website here!

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