Midwife & Breastfeeding Consultant

Your marvellous mothering hormones

Posted on April 4, 2012

On the whole, women’s hormones tend to get a bad rap. They get blamed for all our irrational behaviour and we often think that they’re a bit of nuisance and interfere with us getting on with our lives.  

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

The mothering hormones are oxytocin, beta-endorphins and prolactin.  They work together during labour, birth, in the early days after the birth and beyond.  Each hormone has several functions, some of these functions are physical and they do something in the body and other funtions are emotional meaning they affect our feelings. 

Oxytocin is variously called, the love hormone, or the calm and connectedness hormone.  In fact both descriptions pretty much sum up oxytocin perfectly as it is present during sexual intercourse, orgasm, labour, birth and when we are breastfeeding.  Oxytocin helps us create bonds with other people, such as between a mother and baby, or a woman and her partner.  It is a feel good pleasure hormone that is released when we feel loved and connected so it is present when we have a massage, when we get a hug, when we give birth and when we breastfeed.  It has also 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 oxtyocin. 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 mother.

The second mothering hormone is beta-endorphin and its function is 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.  The baby also receives beta-endorphins during labour and during breastfeeding. 

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 it is with these feelings combined with the loving feelings from oxytocin that she first holds 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 though the birth canal.  

Prolactin is the third mothering hormone and it is actually 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. 

As well as making the breast milk, prolactin 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 a 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.

Becoming a mother is the most transformative experience of a woman’s life.  She goes from being only responsible for her own life to giving birth and then being responsible for the life of a new vulnerable little human being; her baby.  It is an enormous task but women have been doing this for thousands of years and your body has a wisdom of its’ own and provides you with all the help you need.  That help comes in the form of your marvellous mothering hormones; oxytocin, beta- endorphins and prolactin and together they form a very very potent combination to help you on your mothering journey.

 

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