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Oxytocin, Beta-endorphins & Prolactin: Your Hormones During Labour Explained

When it comes to pregnancy, labour, birth and breastfeeding and that all important transition to mothering, our hormones reign supreme, helping our bodies and our brains contend with this incredible journey that we are on.

Oxytocin, beta-endorphins and prolactin help with the physical and emotional transition of becoming a mother and with breastfeeding.

Oxytocin is also called the love hormone as it helps us form bonds with other people. We produce oxytocin when we feel loved as this creates a feeling of connection and pleasure.  It has been shown to lower stress levels, blood pressure, reduce muscle tension and produce an increased desire for social interaction.  This emotional aspect can easily be seen in a mother as she instinctively caresses, strokes and kisses her baby in a haze of love.

Oxytocin’s physical effect on the body is to make the uterus contract and so it is the main hormone of labour. With every contraction, the oxytocin levels rise higher and higher and after birth, the mother’s brain is saturated with extremely high levels of oxytocin. The baby also secretes oxytocin during labour with the levels remaining elevated for at least four days after birth. This means that immediately after birth and with the pain of labour over a mother is immersed in high levels of oxytocin and is primed and ready to fall in love and connect with her new baby.   

Oxytocin also has a major role to play in breastfeeding and is present for as long as the mother breastfeeds. It is the hormone that causes the milk to let down and it also helps the mother feel calm and relaxed which in turn helps her cope with the new experience of becoming a mother.  Breastfeeding also helps the baby as the sucking releases oxytocin and helps him to feel calm and connected to the mother.

Beta-endorphins functions as a form of pain relief, it is produced in increasing amounts as labour progresses. This natural form of pain relief acts like morphine and is designed to help women cope with the pain of labour.  It does this by making her feel less aware of the pain and the length of time the labour is taking.  After the birth, the levels of beta-endorphins are at a peak level for several hours and eventually go back down to normal levels after three days. 

Immediately after the birth, the pain of labour stops completely and it is then the mother really benefits from the extremely high levels of this natural form of morphine. These high levels cause her to feel euphoric and ecstatic and then add to this the loving feelings from oxytocin and together they form a powerful combination to help her to bond and fall in love with her baby. Babies also receive beta-endorphins in the breast milk and this is to help them cope with the pain and discomfort experienced as their skull bones are moulded and pushed through the birth canal.  

Prolactin is the third mothering hormone and it is also known as the mothering hormone. It is the main hormone involved with breastmilk production.  Prolactin is produced in increasing amounts during pregnancy but then actually decreases during labour followed by a huge increase immediately after the birth and for the next two to three hours.  The prolactin levels then decrease slowly over the next few days with surges occurring with every breastfeed for the duration of the breastfeeding relationship.  Prolactin also induces maternal behaviours, making a new mother want to respond to her baby and put the needs of the baby ahead of her own. Prolactin also promotes a feeling of calmness and relaxation.  This hormone helps women embrace the responsibilities associated with mothering, in effect it helps a woman become a mother.

After the birth, the three hormones combine together and help the mother move on from the labour and birth which is a physically and emotionally arduous experience for most women. Yet moments after the birth the mother appears to have forgotten about it all and is totally enamoured and absorbed with her new baby and all her focus is on the very important job of connecting and falling in love with her baby.

Read more breastfeeding tips and advice here


About the Author

A Registered General Nurse, Midwife and International Board Certified Lactation Consultant with over twenty years experience. For the past ten years Clare has been teaching antenatal classes, breastfeeding preparation classes and providing breastfeeding support for moms in Ireland.

"I love my work, it is a privilege to help women during this important time of their life."

To find out more visit www.breastfeedingconsultant.ie

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