Oxytocin, derived from the Greek word for “swift birth,” has long been associated with childbirth, but research is showing more and more that it has a hand in all the aspects of motherhood, as well as our social and romantic interactions.
Oxytocin’s role in conception and pregnancy
As mentioned, oxytocin is now known to play a major role in our social and romantic relationships. It replaces anxiety and fear with a sense of calm, which in turn increases confidence and allows us to bond better.
It’s not surprising that oxytocin is directly involved in the processes of falling in love and of pregnancy. Oxytocin can influence things like:
- The feeling of closeness between two partners;
- The likelihood of forming a unique bond that will help stabilize a relationship, so that both partners can take care of their offspring;
- The ejection of sperm and the contractions that help the sperm reach the egg during sexual intercourse;
- The mother’s abilities to remain calm, absorb more nutrients and sleep better during pregnancy, which helps with her energy levels.
Oxytocin’s role in delivery
Oxytocin, of course, isn’t the only hormone working during delivery, but rather part of a cocktail of hormones that prepare a woman’s body for childbirth. Other hormones present include:
- Adrenalin (and other members of its family)
Oxytocin is the one responsible for uterine contractions during labor. When it begins, oxytocin is present in small amounts that gradually increase throughout. Oxytocin levels are usually at their peak during delivery, creating a sense of euphoria in the mother and, at the same time, helping her develop a stronger bond with her baby.
Another positive aspect of the gradual increase is that it contributes to the placenta’s ejection reflex, helping the uterus return to its original shape faster. This reduces the risk of excessive bleeding and complications.
Pitocin: The synthetic oxytocin
In Canada, more than 37% of women use medical assistance to give birth. That number is closer to 40% in Quebec.
Part of this process includes Pitocin, a synthetic version of the naturally occurring oxytocin. Though it mimics the same actions, it doesn't produce exactly the same results as what our body can do. Sometimes, it can even provoke unseen problems during childbirth.
How is Pitocin different?
- Pitocin is administered intravenously, so it won’t reach the brain and can't produce the euphoric effects oxytocin can at birth;
- Pitocin prevents the secretion of endorphins, the hormones that help you manage pain naturally;
- Since Pitocin can’t dilate the cervix as effectively, it requires a larger amount, which in turn can make delivery more difficult because the contractions are longer and stronger;
- Oxytocin is secreted gradually throughout the body, peaking at birth, which helps us push the baby out faster and easier. As Pitocin is consistently being administered, however, women don’t benefit from the same boost;
- Pitocin interferes with natural oxytocin secretion, which can make bonding and breastfeeding more difficult.
Oxytocin and breastfeeding
Oxytocin also offers unparalleled benefits that will help you nurse your child.
First, when your baby is nursing, its suction causes the release of oxytocin, which contracts the muscles surrounding your mammary glands and promotes milk ejection. Each time you feed, oxytocin’s release will contribute to the mother's mood and give her yet another elevated opportunity to bond with her child.