Rosie Matheson, Senior Bliss Baby Yoga Facilitator and Doula, reveals just how naturally intelligent our bodies are during birth.
Hormones for Birth
As a doula I already had a strong trust in a woman’s ability to birth safely and joyously, but this belief in the innate power of the female body became unbreakable through fully understanding the brilliance of our hormonal system. Knowing that my body, your body, my client’s body, her baby’s body, is so perfectly equipped for birth, as long as it is undisturbed, gives me infinite trust in the natural birth process.
Species survival mechanisms have ensured that we are designed with physiological intelligence beyond anything we could hope to invent or synthetically mimic. For example the very same hormone that causes uterine contractions also inspires unconditional love; the pregnant body knows exactly when to release hormones to trigger a deactivation of the baby’s brain to keep it safe during birth; and the hormone which acts as a natural painkiller for the mother also aids lung maturation for the baby. And all of this requires no conscious choice or effort to do so, how amazing!
So how does this invisible support work? Throughout labour and birth a woman’s body delivers four key hormones. These hormones are released at specific times during the birthing process to provide her with what she needs most – whether it be pain relief, stamina, safety, transcendence or even pleasure.
The most consistently present hormone is Oxytocin. This is the hormone commonly referred to as ‘the love hormone’, because it is the same hormone released in both men and women during orgasm, and is proven to strongly increase feelings of trust and connection. Vaginal birth is physiologically impossible without this hormone, as it’s oxytocin that is responsible for the uterine contractions during labour that work to open the cervix and move your baby into the birth canal.
Oxytocin also works on an emotional level by delivering the woman feelings of love and connection. These feelings inspire perseverance and determination in a way that only love can! It also assists in her baby’s safety.
In the hours surrounding birth, her natural oxytocin level increase to such an extent that it’s able to wash across the placenta and flow into the baby’s body. It then crosses into the baby’s immature blood brain barrier and enters his/her brain. This triggers a response that inhibits brain activity. This is a wonderful thing because during each contraction the uterus squeezes the placenta tightly, which means the baby temporarily receives less blood, oxygen and glucose in those moments. As the brain is one of the highest users of oxygen and glucose, this natural safety mechanism of creating inaction in the baby’s brain ensures that he/she will require less oxygen and glucose during contractions.
After her baby’s born and the mother moves into the Third Stage of Labour (birthing the placenta), oxytocin continues to create strong contractions that encourage the uterus to expel the placenta cleanly and quickly, reducing bleeding and the risk of postpartum haemorrhaging.
And it doesn’t stop there! Oxytocin continues to support her after birth, as every time she breastfeeds, oxytocin is released, helping to stimulate the milk ejection reflex (the process that brings milk from the breast glands into the baby’s mouth). Through this it benefits her with its ‘love-effect’, aiding bonding and feelings of unconditional love between herself and her baby. This may sound gooey and sweet, but it’s another inbuilt safety mechanism to ensure a mother has enough milk to feed her baby and the motivation to care for this otherwise helpless little bundle of joy.
Your next friend goes by the name of Beta-endorphin. This wonderful inbuilt opiate provides the mother with natural pain relief, while delivering feelings of transcendence, euphoria, and pleasure. Yes pleasure! This pleasure can be physical, emotional, or mental, ideally all three. Opiates, including naturally occurring ones, work to activate the dopamine reward centres in your brain, aka your in-built happiness system. It’s part of nature’s clever little plan to ensure the continuation of procreation.
Additionally, beta- endorphin assists the final stages of the baby’s lung maturation, and stimulates the release of prolactin in the mother (more about this hormone below), preparing her breasts for breastfeeding. Once again, you have mother nature serving up a substance that offers pleasurable feelings linked with survival benefits for your baby. Mother Nature you’re a genius!
The next hormones the mother’s body will drum up are adrenaline and noradrenaline.
These are delivered when her cervix is close to full dilation in the phase of labour commonly referred to as ‘transition’ – which occurs between the First and Second Stages of Labour. Once her cervix is completely dilated, she will need energy to tackle the task of pushing her baby out into the world, and she will also want to be more alert and present in preparation for meeting her baby. These ‘fight or flight’ hormones inspire both these reactions, working to bring her out of her beta-endorphin trance-like state and into her powerful pushing chapter. This can feel somewhat disconcerting or scary, but it is actually a very clever design!
Last but not least is prolactin. This hormone plays a key role in the formation and production of breast milk. It is also the hormone of fierce, parental love (found in both men and women taking care of infants). Just think of a mama lion and her cubs and you’ll get a good sense of the nature of prolactin. This hormone works in unison with oxytocin to ensure intense bonding between a mother and her baby, strengthening her resolve to give everything and anything required for the safety and contentment of her baby.
So there you have it! Women’s bodies are incredible, intelligent and impeccably equipped for birth, no extra batteries required!
For a more in-depth understanding of these hormones and their functions, I recommend reading “Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering” by Sarah J Buckley, and almost anything by Michel Odent.
Rosie Matheson is a Senior Bliss Baby Yoga Course Facilitator on our Prenatal & Postnatal Yoga Teacher Training Course. She is also co-contributor to our Level 1 Online Yoga for Fertility Teacher Training, and offers one on one online mentoring to support your yoga teaching, or in your journey to becoming a mother.