It was during the teenage years that I first learned about hormones and the role they play on my changing body. But when I became a doula, I discovered that the right hormones switched on at the right time makes all the difference with love, labor, and birth.
Hormones play a big difference in pregnancy and birth. The four main hormone systems at work are Oxytocin (the love hormone), beta-endorphins (the hormones of pain relief and pleasure), epinefrine and norepinefrine (the hormones of pleasure and excitement), and prolactin (the mothering hormone).
Oxytocin, the most commonly known of the group, is released when we are in love, having sex, giving birth, and breastfeeding. It's main function in labor is to get the contractions going. Oxytocin calms you down during labor and helps with stress. It is important for bonding with your baby as well as helps with your milk coming in following the colostrum (1-3 days after birth). Some of the best ways to get oxytocin flowing are dancing, kissing, breast massage, hugs, and of course, making love.
Beta-Endorphins, like dopamine, are the body's natural opioid response to pain. During labor and birth, the body releases a dose of these beta-endorphins in order to counter the intense sensations. However, if you are experiencing stress during your labor, your body can release excessive beta-endorphins which will inhibit oxytocin and slow down contractions. Beta-endorphins also assist in the release of prolactin in labor, preparing your breasts to feed baby.
Epinephrine and Norepinephrine, also known as adrenaline and noradrenaline, are your body's response to fear, anger, anxiety, hunger, cold, as well as excitement. If you aren't feeling private or safe in labor, your body will produce excess adrenaline and inhibit oxytocin, slowing things down. Although, a sudden burst of adrenaline in late stage labor can give you a burst of energy and a surge of strong contractions to help you push. These hormones help your baby too by protecting them against low oxygen levels when in the birth canal.
Prolactin, or the mothering hormone, is the main hormone responsible for breastfeeding. Prolactin starts to increase in pregnancy and peaks at birth. Your baby will also be creating prolactin in the womb, and even newborn boys will have tiny amounts of breastmilk in their nipples!
Thanks to this important team of hormones, our body knows exactly how to navigate the journey from pregnancy to birth to postpartum. Getting informed about the natural mechanisms we innately have developed of millions of years can help you in trusting your body to be able to do this powerful thing. You should also know that following birth, when our hormones experience a sudden shift, it is completely normal to feel emotional, irritated, or depressed. Knowing this in advance can help you prepare and get the support that you need during this extremely sensitive transitional period.
Bodies are amazing and birth is one of it's most extraordinary displays of it's natural functions!