Hormones play a massive role in how you feel postpartum, bonding with your baby, and how your body heals. Cortisol is the hormone that rises with stress. Dopamine and serotonin are the hormones that make us feel happy. Oxytocin is the one responsible for that warm feeling we get inside when we see someone we love.
Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus and released during sex, childbirth, and lactation to aid reproductive functions. It has physical and psychological effects, including influencing our social behavior and emotion!
Small amounts of oxytocin are passed through milk to the baby along with other hormones such as melatonin, which aids in sleep regulation.
What is oxytocin?
Oxytocin is commonly referred to as the “love drug” because it is released during childbirth, breastfeeding, sex, and physical touch. It is higher in women because it is key in childbirth!
Oxytocin is associated with empathy and trust. Oxytocin increases during orgasm, hugging, breastfeeding, and when you smell a newborn baby. An increase in oxytocin usually makes you feel warm and fuzzy inside!
Synthetic Form: Pitocin
Pitocin is the synthetic version of oxytocin. It is used during labor and immediately postpartum to induce contractions. This can induce labor or, when used postpartum, can treat a hemorrhage.
Once administered for an induction its chemical process begins in about thirty minutes, although labor may last many hours. Sometimes Pitocin is also used to help with stalled labor, an intervention before something more invasive, such as a cesarean section, is recommended.
Increased oxytocin levels affect metabolism. This helps a pregnant person gain weight and store energy for times of rapid fetal growth. During the third trimester, oxytocin increases caution, helping the pregnant person protect themself and practice better spatial awareness.
Childbirth and Immediately Postpartum
Oxytocin is responsible for contractions in labor and postpartum. There is an oxytocin release after birth that causes your senses to be intensified. This allows you to connect with the smell and feel of your baby, and them with yours. You may hear the term “golden hour” to describe the hour after birth when oxytocin flow and skin to skin is so important.
Oxytocin is responsible for the letdown reflex when nursing. This increased oxytocin flow during nursing allows the uterus to continue contracting and heal postpartum. It begins flowing as soon as the parent expects a feeding and again when the baby begins suckling.
Prolactin is ultimately what causes milk production, but oxytocin is what gets the milk flowing! Without oxytocin, milk wouldn’t flow so easily and it would be harder for babies to nurse.
Increasing your oxytocin flow could improve your breastfeeding experience!
Throughout sexual activity, and especially during orgasm, oxytocin is released by both partners. This strengthens the connection between you and your partner and typically results in you wanting to spend more time with them!
The Newborn Baby Smell
The newborn baby smell sets off the same receptors in the brain that drugs set off. The newborn baby smell is addicting! When mothers and nonmothers smelt baby clothes in a study (reported by the Smithsonian Magazine), MRI showed the parts of the brain associated with reward learning lighting up. The dopamine surge that occurred is associated with sexual and drug-type cravings. The reaction appeared to be stronger in mothers and was similar to the reaction we see in patients using mental health drugs.
This reaction is a result of evolution! Bonding is essential for the survival of an infant.
1. Parent-Baby Bonding!
Oxytocin is vital in bonding between a parent and baby, especially during the first hour postpartum, the golden hour!
2. Success in nursing!
The oxytocin increase while breastfeeding can help postpartum parents' mental health, making them more eager to breastfeed. Oxytocin can boost your mental health, which helps with the stress of breastfeeding and the pressure others parents may be putting on you.
3. Stress Relief!
Oxytocin lowers blood pressure and cortisol levels! A great boost for your mental health during the baby blues and times when parents are at higher risk of postpartum mood and anxiety disorders (PMADs).
4. Increased Pain Tolerance!
Ina May Gaskin once said that the best way to get a baby out is the way you got it in! Oxytocin increases pain tolerance, but also helps ease pain in labor. Nipple stimulation and kissing your partner, along with other ways of expressing love, have been proven to reduce pain in labor and even help labor progress when it appears to be stalled. That connection with your partner helps fear subside so the psychological blocks you may have are removed. That combined with oxytocin flow helping with contractions allows labor to move along more seamlessly!
5. Better sleep!
Oxytocin leaves you feeling calm and tranquil, this typically results in much better sleep! This is especially important in pregnancy and postpartum. So much growth is happening in pregnancy, rest is vital to your body! Lack of sleep postpartum can increase the risk of PMADs. Babies also tend to sync their breathing to the caregiver in the room, this is part of why room sharing can reduce the risk of sudden infant death syndrome (SIDS). When you are sleeping better and your breathing is calm, your baby will sleep better too.
Increase Oxytocin Through Bonding
How do you do this? Skin to skin!
When you spend time having skin-to-skin contact with your baby you are increasing your oxytocin. Taking time to smell your baby’s head and become familiar with how they smell and feel, and allowing them the same opportunity to become familiar with you, is the ultimate way to increase oxytocin and strengthen the bond between you and your baby!
Skin to skin can be done while resting in bed, while nursing, or even while babywearing. You can babywear topless and place a large cardigan or zip-up hoodie over the carrier to stay warm. This is most comfortable with a cotton wrap or cloth carrier.
Skin to skin can also happen when co-bathing! As long as you feel comfortable bathing with your baby, they are not getting their umbilical stump wet, you have an extra set of hands, and you have been cleared by your doctor to take baths…co-bathing is a go! You can sit in a warm bath with your baby on your chest or with your legs bent and your baby more in your lap. This is a great way to get your baby used to bath time and get that skin-to-skin time!
Just make sure you have someone close by in case you need them to take the baby so you can get out of the bath easier. Wet babies are very slippery, like a little wet seal!
You can also lay a towel on top of a bath mat next to the tub and gently place your baby on the towel to wrap them before you step out. As long as there are no small items for a baby to grab or anything that may step on the baby, like an over-excited dog, babies are typically very safe lying on the floor. It’s best to exit the tub hands-free and this is a good way to do so if you don’t have someone to lend a hand.
Oxytocin is an extremely important and interesting hormone responsible for the way the feeling of love is expressed inside our bodies! It can make a huge difference in how labor goes for a birthing parent, the attachment between caregiver and baby, and the experience of nursing for both parent and baby! Increasing oxytocin can enhance your experience as a parent, your relationship with your partner, and your overall mental health!
Magazine, S. (2013, September 24). The smell of newborn babies triggers the same reward centers as drugs. Smithsonian.com. Retrieved February 19, 2022, from https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smart-news/the-smell-of-newborn-babies-triggers-the-same-reward-centers-as-drugs-58482/
McKenna, J. J. (n.d.). Babies need their mothers beside them. Babies Need Their Mothers Beside Them - The Natural Child Project. Retrieved February 20, 2022, from https://www.naturalchild.org/articles/james_mckenna/babies_need.html
Uvnas-Moberg K, Petersson M. Oxytocin, ein Vermittler von Antistress, Wohlbefinden, sozialer Interaktion, Wachstum und Heilung [Oxytocin, a mediator of anti-stress, well-being, social interaction, growth and healing]. Z Psychosom Med Psychother. 2005;51(1):57-80. German. doi: 10.13109/zptm.2005.51.1.57. PMID: 15834840.
Whitley J, Wouk K, Bauer AE, Grewen K, Gottfredson NC, Meltzer-Brody S, Propper C, Mills-Koonce R, Pearson B, Stuebe A. Oxytocin during breastfeeding and maternal mood symptoms. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 2020 Mar;113:104581. doi: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2019.104581. Epub 2019 Dec 31. PMID: 31911347; PMCID: PMC8117182.
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Jess Kimball provides doula care, birth photography, and a variety of other services to families!