The 4 Hormones That Drive Labor
Everyone who has ever gone through puberty, and if you are reading this I’m guessing you have, knows how powerful hormones can be. Women, especially, are reminded every month how much they can affect our perceptions, reactions, and our over-all temperament. Men know quite well how the female can change due to hormone changes.
During pregnancy hormones are even more dramatically expressed. A woman may feel weepy, excitement, and panic all at the same time. She may also feel much more hot than she normally feels. Hormones are amazing and powerful chemicals that make us feel crazy at times but are also responsible for our bodies working so well.
Throughout pregnancy, hormones are responsible for keeping your baby inside of you so he can grow in a safe environment. However, when the baby is big enough, hormones initiate and drive labor. The four main hormones responsible for the progress of labor are oxytocin, melatonin, endorphins, and adrenaline.
Oxytocin is known as the “hormone of love.” This hormone is most often expressed during sexual intercourse, contractions, and during breastfeeding.
During labor, oxytocin causes and strengthens contractions. By doing so, it aids in the thinning and dilation of the cervix, moves the baby down through the pelvis and birth canal, expels the placenta, and prevents postpartum hemorrhage.
Oxytocin is stimulated when the baby presses against the cervix and pelvic floor. After birth, breastfeeding causes another surge of oxytocin that causes the uterus to contract detaching and expelling the placenta and closing off the blood vessels that had formed at the site of placental attachment.
A low level of oxytocin can slow contractions and even stop labor all together. It can lead to excessive bleeding after birth and also increases the need for interventions both during and after labor.
Don’t worry about low levels of oxytocin, though. There are several measures you can take to increase oxytocin levels. Staying calm, upright, and avoiding disturbances keeps oxytocin flowing. If you decide to give birth at a hospital, speak with the nurses upon your arrival and ask them to limit the number of people allowed into your room and the number of entrances. Also ask them to knock before entering, to speak in low, quite tones, and refrain from questions and unnecessary noises while mother is having a contraction. Nipple and clitoral stimulation and breastfeeding/pumping also boost oxytocin release. Epidural will limit your ability to use gravity to increase the pressure of baby’s head on the cirvix. By doing so, it will remove the main motivation of oxytocin production.
Melatonin has not been considered one of the big players in labor until a few years ago. A study published in 2008 reported that melatonin synergizes with oxytocin to enhance contractions. This finding wasn’t really a surprise to the birth world, however.
Melatonin is the hormone responsible for inducing and sustaining sleep. It often peaks during the night or early morning hours and is inhibited by daylight and artificial lights. This is why there have been many studies in the last few years encouraging people to limit or completely discontinue screen time a few hours before bed. It is also most likely the reason most women go into labor during the early morning hours.
This hormone is increased by meditation/prayers, relaxation exercises, rhythmic breathing, dark places, and quietness. It has long been common with women in labor to seek out a dark, quite space. It is likely this is our innate response to increase melatonin.
Leaving your house to head to the birthing center or hospital, especially during the day, can cause a drop in melatonin. If you do leave, you may want to consider wearing blue-light blocking sunglasses. Red-light, such as from candles or fire, do not seem to cause a reduction in the production of melatonin so feel free to use candles in setting your birthing environment.
Endorphins are the body’s response to pain and stress. It is our natural pain-reliever. It increases as labor progresses.
High levels of endorphins can help a mother enter what seems like an altered state that helps her stay in her birthing rhythm. This rhythm is each mother’s personal way of riding the waves of contractions. It often causes the mother to feel alert, attentive, and euphoric after birth and is believed to be responsible for strengthening the mother-baby bond.
Epidural and other pain relieving medications can reduce the effectiveness of endorphins. A low level of endorphins can cause labor to become more painful and may lead to interventions. After birth, it is believed that a drop in endorphins leads to “baby blues.” “Baby blues” are very common. This reaction usually shows up a few days after birth and lasts only a few days. A woman may feel sad and cry but it usually clears up after a few days. If it lasts longer, it may be postpartum depression and you should seek medical attention for help. Postpartum depression can occur in both men and women and is not a sign of weakness or inability to handle parenthood. It is usually a hormone or chemical imbalance and can be treated.
Endorphins can be increased by staying calm, confident, and comfortable. It is also important to avoid disturbances and pain medication, much like with oxytocin.
During labor, if a mother feels threatened, stressed, or fearful, she will start producing adrenaline. Unfortunately, this hormone is counterproductive to labor. It will slow and even stop labor at time causing labor to lengthen. It can also cause the baby to become distressed, cause mom to experience increased pain and panic, and often leads to interventions, including c-section.
In order to reduce the likelihood of adrenaline, it is vital that the mother remains calm, relaxed, confident, and comfortable. Being informed and prepared before labor even begins is the first step to staying calm and confident. It is also important to have trust and confidence in your caregivers, support team, and place of birth. Creating a calm, peaceful environment and avoiding conflict reduce the emotional stress on the mother. As with the other hormones, avoiding intrusive, painful, and disruptive procedures is helpful in preventing the release of adrenaline. Having a a good support team to provide reassurance, encouragement, comfort measures, and information will be a tremendous help in inhibiting the production of adrenaline.
Hormones are amazing substances that drive our lives. They are no more evident than in labor. They are powerful allies in labor. By taking a few measures, you can use hormones to encourage a healthy labor and delivery and enjoy the process of becoming a family.