Understanding Your Birth Hormones to Help Your Birth
Updated: Oct 4, 2023
Let's talk about birth hormones!
Hormones are the body’s SUPER important chemical messengers, they affect how we feel emotionally and physically and how labour and birth progresses.
A hormonal orchestra:
Midwife, Author and Educator Dr Rachel Reed (midwifethinking.com), has a great analogy describing physiological birth as a hormonal orchestra, where the nervous system and brain are the conductor,individual hormones are the musicians, the body, body parts and organs are the instruments and the rhythm and pattern of the physiological birth process is the music. She describes how the external environment and incomings into the sensory system can support or disrupt the conductor (brain). If the conductor is disrupted, the musicians (hormones) don't get the correct messages and 'music' (rhythm & pattern of physiological birth) is out of tune or not in sync. Therefore, the full orchestra needs to work together to create a symphony (labour and birth).
I really like this analogy, it shows how everything in birth is linked. So what about the hormones? there are many hormones involved in labour and birth, today I’ll focus on three key players below.
First up, oxytocin...
The happy love hormone – produced when falling in love, making love, during orgasm and bonding, you know, that lovely warm fuzzy feeling.
Oxytocin thrives in calm, relaxed environments when the brain is in the ‘rest and digest’ nervous system response (the opposite to the ‘flight or fight’ nervous system response – more on that under ‘adrenaline’).
Oxytocin is a hero hormone when it comes to birth and makes the uterus (womb) muscles work in labour during surges.
More oxytocin = stronger more productive the surges.
Less oxytocin = weaker less productive surges. It’s that simple!
Oxytocin also helps in bonding with your baby, milk production and establishing breastfeeding. Busy hormone eh!
Oxytocin doesn’t work alone and has a buddy in birth called beta-endorphins! Woop Woop! (see below).
Say hi to, beta-endorphins:
Beta-endorphins are also pretty frickin’ awesome, they are your body’s natural pain killers and LOADS more powerful than morphine! Wahoo!
They make you feel great and make your surges feel more comfortable.
Basically, more oxytocin = more beta-endorphins meaning your uterus muscles work effectively and efficiently and the sensations are more comfortable. Pretty cool huh!
Finally, introducing, adrenaline:
When it comes to birth, adrenaline can have a bit of a bad reputation. Too much adrenaline in early labour and your labour can slow down, or even stop. Why? Because adrenaline is a blocker of oxytocin (you know the hormone that actually works the uterus muscles)
More adrenaline = less oxytocin and beta-endorphins. Meaning your uterus muscles don’t work effectively and the surges are more uncomfortable.
Adrenaline thrives in fear environments, ever heard of the ‘fight or flight’ response? this life saving response is the opposite to the ‘rest and digest’ response. Humans aren’t designed to birth in dangerous environments, why would we? we don’t want our babies to be born where there is a danger, this response is completely automatic. So, adrenaline in early or established labour isn’t great.
However, there is a time in birth when adrenaline is pretty handy, and that’s right before you push your baby out (for which your body has a build in natural reflex – the fetal-ejection reflex) it’s almost like your body was designed to birth a baby!
At this point the natural levels of oxytocin are so high that having a surge of adrenaline won’t stop labour completely, but may give you a break in your surges in what is often described as ‘rest and be thankful’. At this point in labour it is common to feel scared, fearful or doubt you can carry on, if you feel these emotions you can reframe it as “yay, I’m going to meet my baby soon” and remember the end is near!
Adrenaline at the end of labour gives you the clarity of mind you need to care for your baby and boost of energy you need to birth your baby.
This sounds cool, what can I do to help my birth hormones?
Address any anxiety or fear you have about birth before you birth your baby and practice building new positive birth thoughts that make you excited for your birth. It is possible!
Create mental, physical and sensory positive relaxation anchors to help you feel calm and relaxed during labour and birth, helping oxytocin thrive.
Learn about your birth options and choices so you can make calm, confident, empowered decisions that are right for you and your baby.
Learn how birth works and what you can do to optimise your environment to help you have an amazing birth.
Knowing these things will help you in all birth scenarios as well as recovering from birth too...
Knowing about your hormones and how they affect your body benefits you however and wherever you birth you baby, whether you have a home birth, hospital birth, induction or caesarean birth. Knowing about your birth hormones and how you can boost your oxytocin is so valuable in ALL birth scenarios as well as postnatally when you are recovering from birth. The same principles apply to your body functioning to its best after you have birthed your baby. Your body needs to heal, and to do that it needs avoid being in the 'flight or fight' response filled with adrenaline and instead in the 'rest and digest' nervous system response with maximum oxytocin and beta-endorphins.
I'm always happy to chat.