For the last several weeks of February, we will be discussing oxytocin, the hormone of love. Research continues to reveal just how important this hormone is for bonding, attachment, development of social skills, expression of innate maternal competencies, organizing and integrating role in the brain during labor and breastfeeding (Moberg, 2015).
During natural labor, oxytocin builds in the maternal system, causing increasingly strong contractions that promote birth. In the later stages of labor, the mother's skin will flush, her pupils will dilate, and her senses will become heightened. Her skin and especially her breasts will increase in temperature to provide warmth to her newborn. This hormonal rush creates a need for a quiet, dark and peaceful location--a safe place to birth her baby. And she will be ready to greet her baby, who is also receiving oxytocin through the placenta. He will arrive with eyes very dilated, an ability to focus at the breast-to-face distance, and senses heightened, as well as the ability to "crawl" to the breast. As he begins to breastfeed, even more oxytocin is released in the maternal system, decreasing the risk of hemorrhage, producing the milk ejection reflex, and transferring to the infant through breast milk.
Interestingly enough, research is also showing us that the optimal environment for high levels of oxytocin is quiet, dark, and intimate. Locations that do not provide this safety and security can be problematic. Think of some hospital birthing environments, where we provide a lack of privacy, create fear and tension, whether we mean to or not. These activate the release of stress hormones like cortisol and vasopressin, among others, and prompting the "fight or flight" response. Stress hormones compete with and suppress oxytocin.
As you work diligently to promote, protect, and support breastfeeding in your journey to Baby-Friendly designation, consider evaluating your birthing practices. Do they promote oxytocin release or do they suppress it? How can those practices be improved?
In the next Thursday Truth post, we will discuss the differences between oxytocin and Pitocin, and what happens at the physiological level for birth and breastfeeding.
Moberg, K. U. (2015). Oxytocin: The Biological Guide to Motherhood. Plano, TX: Hale Publishing, L.P.
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