We have long known that the same hormone behind orgasms also causes uterine contractions in labour: oxytocin. But recent studies of this fascinating hormone reveal that it is responsible for far more than has ever been suspected. The Karolinska Institute’s work suggests that oxytocin may be a major player in infant survival. During labour, oxytocin fills the mother with pleasant, dreamy sensations that shift her into a trance-like state which causes her to exist in the moment, unaware of the passing of time. The high levels of oxytocin in the mother’s brain allow her to relax and ‘space-out’ despite labour’s extreme pain. They permit her to open her body and surrender to the rhythms of labour. When the baby is born, both mother and infant are overflowing with oxytocin, which has now been shown to foster instinctive interactions between mother and baby. The oxytocin guides that overwhelming rush of love that passes between new parents and baby, the gazing into each other’s eyes, the stroking and smiling, and the proclamations of love. It prompts breastfeeding behaviours in both mother and child, it promotes affection and loyalty, it helps gastrointestinal activity, it helps with sleep, it reduces stress, it helps the cardiovascular system, it harmonizes milk supply, and generally put, it allows infants to thrive. We now know that the more oxytocin mothers and baby share, the better for both of them; for their health, their relationship, their confidence, and their sense of trust in each other. It may come as no surprise, then, that the higher the oxytocin during birth, the easier the start for mother and baby alike.
So how do we boost oxytocin production during birth? By providing empathic, caring labour support, privacy so the mother feels uninhibited to express herself, comfort measures such as massage, freedom to eat, move, and make noise, by keeping medical interventions to a minimum, and by stepping back and refraining from dampening the potential for joy in labour. Joy during labour? Yes indeed. Read on for an inspiring birth story that radiates joy, a review of a film provocatively entitled “Orgasmic Birth,” and three fascinating articles on the nature of joy during birth. This issue explores the unique contradiction of extreme physical challenge and euphoric joy that can co-exist during birth, thanks to the hormone of love: oxytocin.