Oxytocin has acquired a rather racy reputation in recent years as a “love” hormone. Over the past two decades, headline-grabbing research has touted oxytocin’s role in mate selection based on animal studies and its role in building trust, social connections, and empathy. The consumer marketplace responded with spray products of this “miraculous molecule” to create bonds in the workplace and raise one’s self-esteem as well as attract members of the opposite sex, despite cautions from scientists about unknown effects on humans from long-term use. One study involving an investment simulation showed that after using the spray, people entrusted larger amounts of money to a banker. Other studies have examined how oxytocin might be used in the treatment of autism spectrum disorders.
Often in such coverage, but not always, a perfunctory nod is given to oxytocin’s role in childbirth and lactation, as if acknowledging the boring and mundane before moving on to the truly fascinating. Last October, Fox News didn’t even bother to mention the birth aspects in a subtly lurid piece about findings based on a study of mice that oxytocin regulates female sexual behavior. The story focused solely on the female’s response to males. In a revealing contrast, major news outlets did not cover the release in late January of a landmark report on the role of oxytocin and other hormones of birth. While the non-birth oxytocin research is mostly speculative in attempting to discover how oxytocin may or may not work in settings other than childbearing, this report amply demonstrates that it actually plays an essential role in healthy birth and breastfeeding.
The report reviews all the scientific evidence on the hormonal physiology of birth and includes more than 1100 references. Overall, substantial research supports the idea long put forth by natural childbirth advocates that to ensure optimal outcomes for mother and baby, disturbances to the natural flow of birth hormones via technological interventions should be kept to a minimum.
Oxytocin plays a role in the labor, birth and postpartum transitions of both mother and baby. Before labor, oxytocin receptors in the uterus increase. Released into the mother’s bloodstream during labor, oxytocin causes contractions throughout and provides a late-labor surge that aids the pushing stage. It also creates calming and analgesic effects in mothers and babies from labor through the postpartum period. In the hour or so after birth, skin to skin contact between mother and baby increases oxytocin’s effects, including stronger contractions for the mother that may lessen the risk of hemorrhage, natural warming of the newborn through dilation of blood vessels in the mother’s chest, and facilitation of breastfeeding by reducing stress in both mother and baby.
On the other hand, synthetic oxytocin is commonly used to start or augment labor contractions. It is not believed to enter the mother’s brain, so the calming and analgesic effects would not be realized. Conversely, synthetic oxytocin may cause overly strong contractions that increase pain and may deprive the baby of oxygen. If used for a lengthy period of time, synthetic oxytocin can desensitize uterine oxytocin receptors, reducing the power of contractions and leading to an extended pushing stage, possible use of instruments for delivery, and/or postpartum hemorrhage. Epidural anesthesia is another common practice that reduces oxytocin production in the mother, leading to use of synthetic oxytocin with its attendant drawbacks.
Various reasons could account for mainstream media’s disregard for this research. Childbirth is a common experience, so the natural working of women’s bodies is not deemed noteworthy. The findings pertain more directly to health care providers rather than consumers, perhaps making it less newsworthy for a general audience. Such criteria reflect the values of our culture, where birth is treated almost exclusively as a medical event.
However, even in this limited context, information about how to make the process as healthy as possible ought to be widely disseminated because we encounter pregnancy and birth so readily among friends, family, and co-workers. As all humans are born the same way, it’s surprising that approaches to create healthy births are given so little emphasis. Birth outcomes affect all of us, men as well as women, right now and into the future. Recognizing this fact, the report sponsors have created booklets, handouts and posters to educate families and health care providers.
Going even further, indirectly this new report also invites reflection on birth in a context beyond the merely clinical. Its 224 pages addressing three other birth hormones in addition to oxytocin show very clearly that birth is not an illness needing treatment but rather a natural process (involving pain and risk, to be sure) representing a profound life passage, for which the human body — the mother interconnected with baby of either gender — is powerfully and intricately designed.
An ancient story told anew every single day all over the world, whether the media notices or not.