So here we are - and after a little taste of spring , the last two days it has felt like we were back in the darkest, coldest months of the year again, with gale force winds and lashing rain and a desire to snuggle up in front of a roaring stove with a blanket and a mug of hot chocolate. (or is that just me?) Ever wondered why that feels so good? Besides the obvious, of course - warm feet are more comfortable than freezing feet, full stomachs than growling ones... but that 'mmmm' feeling - you know, the one you get at the end of a fantastic meal, or cuddling up to a loved one, or perhaps during a few precious moments of peace in a warm bath - what exactly makes us feel so good? The answer (as hopefully those who remember anything from their antenatal classes will tell you) is oxytocin.
The hormone oxytocin is pretty amazing. It is, of course the Hormone of Luuurve - cue Barry White - produced during kissing, cuddling and in copious quantities at orgasm... and it plays a critical role in both birth and breastfeeding - more on that later. But it could perhaps be better characterised as the Calm and Connection hormone - sort of the polar opposite of the 'fight and flight hormone, adrenalin, really. Oxytocin is produced - by men and women - in response to warmth, rhythmic touch and fullness after eating. It encourages feelings of trust and curiosity, sensitivity to others and openness, and promotes physical growth and healing. A recent study, for example, showed elevated oxytocin levels in groups of women who spent time talking together - sounds like the perfect rationale for NCT coffee mornings with large amounts of cake...
To turn to labour and birth, oxytocin plays a vital part. Produced in rhythmic bursts, it causes the long muscle fibres of the uterus to shorten - it is the driving force behind labour contractions. When oxytocin is present in higher quantities in a woman's body, each labour contraction will be more effective, meaning that labour is shorter overall.
Oxytocin also plays a starring role in breastfeeding. Triggered by the baby suckling at the breast, oxytocin is produced, causing little rings of muscle surrounding the milk-producing tissue in the breast to squeeze, and pushing the milk into the ducts and down to where the baby can access it! This is commonly known as the let-down reflex. A woman can be producing loads of milk - but without oxytocin, it stays in the breasts (an example of this that many people may recognise is when learning to express milk - the body doesn't immediately release oxytocin in response to a pump as it does automatically with the baby, and therefore a disappointing dribble makes its way into the bottle, possibly causing panic and worry. It bears no relation to the amount of milk the baby can get at!!) Conversely, sometimes a burst of oxytocin may cause milk to flow in a lactating mother even when the baby is not feeding - during a warm shower, in response to the baby crying - or while making love (be forewarned on that one - it can squirt!)
So how can we make the most of this wonder hormone? Well, in the context of birth, it really is true to say that what got us into this position is also what will get the baby out. Often in antenatal classes I ask the men and the women to get into groups and think about the perfect romantic night in - if you were aiming for seduction (not with a huge bump and seven-month-pregnant weariness! Just generally...) what would you do to make the night work? Lists have at times included diamonds, Bollinger and Brad Pitt, but always in the mix we get warmth (roaring log fires), low lighting (candles), good food and drink, music, touch (cuddles, massage), not being hurried, a sense of privacy and lack of distractions . Guess what? These are all things which encourage the production of oxytocin! So although it might seem a peripheral concern to think about the labour environment, it's actually hugely important, and can contribute to faster and more straightforward births. Remember, we're all mammals - and perhaps at our most mammalian during the birth process. You won't go far wrong if you think about how cats give birth - they find somewhere where they won't be disturbed, somewhere warm and dark, and let nature takes its course. It's perhaps especially important for parents planning a hospital birth (think strip lighting, funny smells, lots of new people...) to think in advance about what they can do to create a more oxytocin-friendly space for the labouring woman. There are lots of things that you can do - I know one woman who took in a big throw from home and basically spent her whole labour and birth under the blanket! - it just takes a little lateral thinking.
Likewise, for anyone finding breastfeeding a struggle, it can help to boost oxytocin levels - try feeding the baby while you're having a warm bath (with someone else there to help you get the baby safely in and out!) or creating a little cosy, dark 'feeding boudoir'.
There is loads of fascinating information out there on oxytocin and its effects on humans. If anyone is interested and of a gently scientific bent, researcher Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg's book The Oxytocin Factor is intriguing reading, and the renowned French obstetrician Michel Odent has originated a whole field of study, termed primal health, focussing on the effects on children of their hormonal environment before, during and just after birth. But for now, why don't you snuggle up, put on some really good music, get someone lovely to give you a massage, and revel in a little bit of oxytocin bliss?