Note: this page is about how professionals can TEACH this concept to expectant parents. If you’re an expectant parent looking for info on labor hormones, their effect on labor pain, and what your partner can do to help you have a shorter and less painful labor, read Hormones and Labor Pain or listen to episode 5 of my podcast – Labor Support.
In my childbirth classes, and with doula clients, I want them to understand that our emotions, and the support we receive, absolutely affect labor on a physiological basis, by influencing our hormones. The big message is that fear and anxiety slow labor down and make it more painful. Support and feeling safe make labor faster and easier. I have simplified the complex details into a simple stick figure drawing that takes 5-10 minutes.
Before I talk about my teaching method, let’s start with…
A basic summary* of hormones
- What it does: Causes labor contractions that dilate cervix (i.e. helps labor progress)
- What hinders oxytocin production: Anxiety, bright light, feeling observed or judged. Pitocin (if you’re given synthetic oxytocin, you make less hormonal oxytocin)
- What increases oxytocin: Skin-to-skin contact. Nipple stimulation, making love.
- What they do: Relieve pain, reduce stress (cause euphoria and feelings of interdependency)
- What hinders endorphin production: Stress, lack of support. Narcotics (if you have an external opiate, your body will start producing less internal opiate… even after the narcotics wear off, you’ll have less endorphins)
- What increases endorphins: social contact and support from loved ones.
- What does it do: In early / active labor: slow labor down(Imagine a rabbit in a field. If it doesn’t feel safe, it wants to keep baby inside to protect it) In pushing stage: Make you and baby alert and ready for birth, give you energy to push quickly. (If the rabbit is about to have a baby, and something frightens it, it wants to get the baby out as quickly as possible so it can pick it up and run with it.)
- What increases adrenaline: Stress / anxiety / fear; Lack of control; Feeling trapped; Hunger, cold
- What increases oxytocin and endorphins and reduces adrenaline: creating an environment where the birthing parent feels private, safe, not judged, loved, respected, protected, free to move about.
Teaching about Hormones
So, in class how do I convey these ideas in just a few minutes, so it’s easy to understand and to remember?
First, I say: “In labor, our emotions and our environment effect our hormones. Our hormones have a huge effect on labor. Let’s look at a couple scenarios for labor.” [I draw two stick figures on the board.] “This one is awash in stress hormones which will make labor longer and more painful. Let’s label it adrenaline. This one is under the influence of oxytocin and endorphins. These help the laboring person shift into an altered state where labor pain is milder (less intense and less unpleasant) and also help labor progress more quickly.” [Add labels to drawings, add sad face and smiley face.]
Then I say “So, you are all probably familiar with adrenaline. What do we call it? Yes, the fight or flight hormone. This is the idea that if an individual ran into a tiger in the woods, 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.” [I add these labels to my drawing.] (I sometimes throw in the tidbit here that men who are not dads are more likely to release adrenaline during stressful situations; women and dads are more likely to release oxytocin – it’s the “gather the babies and protect them” response.)
“So, what effect do these hormones have?”
“With adrenaline, all your muscles tighten. All your energy goes to your limbs in case you need to fight or run away. So, oxytocin production drops and labor slows down. (It’s hard for your cervix to open when you feel scared…) You are also more sensitive to pain – this is useful if you’re at risk of injury – your body tells you what to move away from. But, in labor it’s not helpful – it just means labor hurts more!”
“With oxytocin and endorphins all your muscles relax. Energy is sent to the uterus and oxytocin increases. (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 in us… “I love you man….””
[As you talk, write the notes, and draw on the figures like this to show effects…]
[If you teach the 3R’s method for coping with labor pain – relaxation, rhythm, and ritual, you can also add in here: If you’ve got oxytocin and endorphins flowing, you may also have more rhythm – you may rock, moan or sway rhythmically. If your partner helps to reinforce your ritual, it will help build your oxytocin and endorphins.]
“So, what causes adrenaline rushes? Fear, anxiety, feeling watched or judged, feeling like you have no control over your situation, being hungry or cold.”
“How can we tell a person in labor is rushing adrenaline? They act vigilant or panicky, have lots of muscle tension, and a high pitched voice.”
“What causes oxytocin and endorphins to flow? Feeling safe, loved, protected, having privacy, having support, eye contact, skin-to-skin contact, and love making.”
“How can we tell if someone is in an endorphin / oxytocin high? They seem open and trusting, their muscles are relaxed, and their voices are low-pitched and husky.”
[Add notes about causes and signs to your picture.]
“So, partners, what’s the big picture summary?”
“If you remember nothing else from this class, remember this: If a person in labor feels safe, loved, and supported, her labor will be faster and less painful. If in doubt about what to do, always return to this! Anything that helps her relax, gain her rhythm and feel cared for will help her.”
* If you want a great overview of hormones in labor, read Pathways to Birth. If you want all the details on hormones in labor, read Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing. You can find them both at: http://transform.childbirthconnection.org/reports/physiology/.
Find more thoughts about teaching on my blog for childbirth educators. Check out ideas for interactive activities for childbirth classes. To learn more about any topic related to the perinatal period, check out our book Pregnancy, Childbirth, and the Newborn: The Complete Guide