Our emotions, and the support we receive, affect labor on a physiological basis by influencing our hormones. Understanding those hormones can help your labor be shorter and less painful.
Meet the Hormones
You are probably familiar with adrenaline. What do we call it? Yep, the fight or flight hormone. This is the idea that if an individual ran into a tiger in the jungle, they would choose either to fight it or to run away. Do you know what we call oxytocin? Many call it “collect and protect” or “tend and befriend.” If a tiger is coming into our village, we gather everyone together, because we are safest together.
Fun fact: During stressful situations, men who are not dads are more likely to release adrenaline; women and dads are more likely to release oxytocin – it’s the “gather the babies and protect them” response.
What effect do hormones have on you and on labor?
With adrenaline (and the other catecholamine stress hormones), your heart rate increases and all your muscles tighten. All your energy goes to your limbs in case you need to fight or run away. You are also more sensitive to pain – this is useful if you’re at risk of injury – your body tells you what dangers to move away from. But, for childbirth, it’s not helpful – it just means labor hurts more! As adrenaline increases, oxytocin production drops and labor slows down. (It’s hard for your cervix to open when you feel scared…)
With oxytocin and endorphins all your muscles relax. Energy is sent to the uterus and oxytocin increases, which speeds up labor. (Oxytocin is often called the love hormone, because it increases when we feel loved, and its peak levels are when we orgasm, when we birth, and when we breastfeed. It’s all about making babies, birthing babies, and feeding babies.) We also get an increased endorphin flow, which makes us less sensitive to pain, can cause euphoria, and can cause feelings of love and dependency.
What increases these hormones?
So, what causes adrenaline rushes? Fear, anxiety, feeling watched or judged, feeling like you have no control over your situation, bright lights, and being hungry or cold all increase stress hormones.
What causes oxytocin and endorphins to flow? Feeling safe, loved, protected, having privacy, having support, feeling warm and cozy, eye contact, skin-to-skin contact, kissing, nipple stimulation, and love making.
How can we tell which hormones are affecting someone?
How can we tell a person in labor is rushing adrenaline? They act vigilant or panicky, breathe fast, have lots of muscle tension, focused eyes that dart around if they hear sounds, and a high pitched voice.
How can we tell if someone is in an endorphin / oxytocin high? They seem open and trusting, their muscles are relaxed, their voices are low-pitched and husky, their eyes are sleepy, and they move rhythmically.
What does this mean for labor support?
One of the biggest influences on labor hormones is the kind of support that is given by partners and loved ones to the pregnant parent. If a person in labor feels safe, loved, and supported, labor will be faster and less painful.
Any time a doula, birth coach, or other labor support person is in doubt about what to do to support the laboring parent, they can always return to this idea! Anything that helps her to relax, gain her rhythm and feel cared for will help the labor. This is especially important for a mother who prefers a natural labor without pain medication to an alternative such as epidural anesthesia.
During pregnancy, talk together about the things that help her to feel safe and relaxed so you can help ensure they’re there during labor.
If you want a great overview of hormones in labor, read Pathways to Birth. http://www.nationalpartnership.org/our-work/resources/health-care/maternity/pathway-to-a-healthy-birth-booklet.pdf
To learn more about any topic related to the perinatal period, check out the book I co-author: Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: The Complete Guide