Birth Blog

The Incredible Hormones of Labor

by Julia West on June 27, 2013

During labor, the body naturally releases some incredible hormones to assist in the birth process that can provide a mother with physical, emotional and mental benefits to support a smooth delivery. Here is a brief explanation of four of those hormones:

Beta-Endorphin

This is a natural pain-killer. It promotes feelings of pleasure, euphoria and dependency. It reduces the effects of stress for both mamas and babies. Elevated levels of beta-endorphin support mother-baby interactions, including breastfeeding; it is even present in breastmilk. It contributes to mothers and babies feeling ecstatic after birth. (1)

Catecholamines

These are the “fight-or-flight” hormones produced by the body in response to stress. These have been shown to slow or inhibit labor if a woman feels threatened by her environment. This is an animal instinct that helps a mother protect her young. For example, if a deer goes into labor in the wild, but senses a hunter nearby, she can stop her labor and move to safety. Women can have the same reaction- yes, the cervix can actually begin to close!- if she senses danger. The level of catecholamines increases and peaks right at the end of labor, giving mother a rush of energy and strength to push her baby out. (1)

Baby also has elevated levels of catecholamines as he feels pressure on his head from pushing on the cervix. This protects baby from a shortage of oxygen. According to The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth, a baby has an oxygen deficiency similar to that of a sprinter after a run, but he is able to cope with the oxygen deprivation better than adults, due to his catecholamine levels. Catecholamines also improve baby’s altertness and dilate his pupils so he can fix his gaze on his mama and respond to her, and so catecholamines are part of the bonding process for moms and babies. (2)

Oxytocin

This is known as the “love hormone” and is the most powerful hormone for stimulating uterine contractions. When a woman feels pain, her brain is signaled to release oxytocin into her system. (One of the many ways to view the pain of labor as having a purpose!) Oxytocin is also released during nipple stimulation (which can help naturally bring on or encourage labor) and so mother feels a healthy flood of oxytocin each time she nurses her babies. It enhances nutrient absorption and conserves energy, which can help mothers feels relaxed or even sleepy. Oxytocin has been shown to reduce blood pressure. At the moment of birth and in the moments after birth, a mother’s system is flooded with oxytocin, which encourages her motherly instincts of protection over her baby and even mimics feelings of “addiction” in the brain. (1) During breastfeeding, oxytocin signals the “letdown reflex,” for milk to be released.

Prolactin

Prolactin is another stress-relieving hormone that promotoes surrender. It helps a mother put her baby’s needs before her own. In fact, even fathers-to-be have been shown to have elevated levels of prolactin just before their baby’s birth. Prolactin is vital to breastfeeding, as it prepares mother’s body for lactation during pregnancy and signals the production of milk at the end of pregnancy. Prolactin also helps alter a mother’s sleep patterns, to be able to wake more often to tend to a new baby’s needs.

These hormones work to balance each other and each plays a unique and important role in birth for both mothers and babies. When a mother is comfortable in her environment and can birth without interruption, she and her baby can receive normal doses of these hormones and use them to their full potential!

Sources:

(1) Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering by Sarah Buckley, MD
(2) The Complete Book of Pregnancy and Childbirth by Sheila Kitzinger

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