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What is Oxytocin?

Going into labour is like falling asleep…

Labour is a different state of being, a state of being with a lot of similarities to sleep. For a start, they are both states that cannot be forced. They just happen! Sometimes when we least expect it. We cannot decide or control the moment when we fall asleep. We can also not decide or control the moment when we “fall into labour.” But we can make it difficult for both to happen easily and most effectively.

Labour is like sleep because we need the same conditions to “fall into labour” as we need to “fall asleep.” We need to feel safe and warm and relaxed. We need to be in a place in which we feel comfortable, and we need to be free from pressure, anxiety or fear.   

Oxytocin

When a woman is in labour she releases a hormone called oxytocin. Oxytocin is the hormone that makes the uterus contract during labour.

It is also the hormone of love.

Oxytocin is the hormone we release when we are enjoying a meal, or having a stimulating conversation. It is the hormone we release when we are making love and when we orgasm. It is the hormone that makes us feel in love, and it is the hormone that releases the milk when a mother is breastfeeding.

Isn’t it amazing that it is the love hormone that brings the baby into the world?

In hospitals synthetic oxytocin is often given to women. It has different names like Pitocin or Syntocinon. Synthetic oxytocin is given to make the mother’s uterus contract, which can help to birth the baby. But this synthetic oxytocin is not a love hormone. It is not like the oxytocin that is naturally secreted by the mother’s body. Synthetic oxytocin is just a hormone that contracts the uterus and helps to push the baby out. It is important that we know more about the effects and function of natural oxytocin, because when a labouring woman is under the effect of synthetic oxytocin she may have a decreased ability to produce natural oxytocin. 

How is synthetic oxytocin used?

Synthetic oxytocin is used to induce a labour (this means starting a labour artificially) or to augment a labour (this means to speed up a labour that has stopped or slowed down). Synthetic oxytocin is also used for active management of the third stage of labour when the placenta is delivered (an injection of synthetic oxytocin is given to the mother to help deliver the placenta quickly). It is also used to stop a mother bleeding if she has a postpartum haemorrhage (when the mother’s uterus doesn’t contract after birth and she begins to bleed heavily).

Induction

These days it is very common for a woman to be induced to start her labour. She may be given many reasons for this: she may be over her due date, or her caregivers may be worried that her baby is getting too big, or that her baby is ill, or that she is ill.

Augmentation

When a woman is in labour, it is common for her labour to slow down or even to stop when she arrives in  the hospital. There could be many reasons for this sudden slowing down of the labour: the lights are too bright, she is given a vaginal examination, a stranger enters the room, she is feeling watched or self-conscious, she is feeling rushed, cold or scared. Usually, if the labour doesn’t start up again after a certain amount of time, synthetic oxytocin will be used to get the labour going again. This labour is now very different to the natural labour of the love hormone. This new labour is now governed by a synthetic oxytocin, which has the effect of contracting the uterus without the behavioural effects of the natural love hormone.


The baby, when he or she is ready to be born,

will send a message that tells the mother’s body that it is ready.

The mother’s body can then begin labour by slowly releasing oxytocin, the hormone of love.

The mother and baby work together to bring the baby into the world.