An Ode to Birth Hormones: When not to Worry, When to Wait

5 min read

Hormones are the ultimate helpers in pregnancy and birth. That being said, let me take you through a story weaved with personal experiences where these chemical messengers played an imperative role. 

A story where I decided to have a labor support eschewing the rigmarole only to have a better delivery experience for me, my baby, and my family.

So, without any further ado, let’s understand the significance of birth hormones during pregnancy.

During normal and healthy birth, a woman’s body releases hormones that help her in labor effectively in the following ways:

  • cope with pain
  • bond with the baby.
  • the transition of the baby to life outside of the womb by maintaining a  normal  body temperature
  • breastfeed successfully

Enough of knowledge! Let’s cut to the chase:

In the last few weeks of pregnancy, I was tired of being pregnant but somehow managed to gear myself up by remembering what my Lamaze Childbirth Educator told me Let labor begin on its own”.

As a follower of Rumi, I understood that patience is the key to joy. Thus, I stopped anticipating and gave my full attention to proper rest and exercise. 

Several studies have shown that women who exercise regularly have higher levels of endorphins when they go into labor and report less labor pain.

Wondering what I was up to?

My due date was a week away and I had to visit my maternity care provider  for  a regular checkup.  I guess she sensed my jitteriness and reassured me that my hormones are doing a lot of work.

Prolactin is preparing my breasts to be ready for breastfeeding and similarly waiting full term is going to prepare my baby to be ready to live outside the womb. 

If we induced labor (Synthetic Oxytocin) we would be cutting that work short and if my body isn’t ready for labor then induction may lead to many more interventions.

The moral of these facts is that I decided to abide by her instructions about which I will never regret!

The road ahead

In the next few days, I started to experience cramps which at times either felt like a menstrual ache or dull pokings. And the cure for this pain was in the pain, i.e. the hormones. My body  was releasing oxytocin, which would make my uterus contract during labor. 

That’s why I was feeling those dull cramps that would come and go. It was like my uterus was warming up for the marathon. ☺

The night before when my son was born these contractions became strong and when I timed them they were less than 10-15 minutes apart and were gradually getting closer and stronger. So, we decided to check in to the hospital. 

I kept myself positive and full of conviction during these  contractions  as  I recalled my Lamaze Childbirth educator mentioning that these contractions will slowly efface and dilate my softened cervix and encourage the baby to move downwards in the pelvis.

On my way to the hospital, I called my friend, i.e.  my labor support coach as I  embarked on the labor and delivery journey. Not to mention, since time  immemorial, laboring women have been comforted and reassured by other women. I planned for this support to make birth safer for me and healthier for my baby.

By the time we arrived at the hospital, I noticed that my contractions were getting slower and weaker than they were at home. Was this a false alarm? The nurse  explained to me that this happens a lot. 

When a laboring woman is in Stress and sudden anxiety stimulates the release of Catecholamines (stress hormones) which slows down the labor. She did say that contractions will get stronger again when I settle down. And exactly that happened.

When the nurse left us I was joined by my friend. We turned down the lights and I surely relaxed. I could feel my contractions getting stronger and closer again. In my heart, I was thanking the Almighty for all the support I was getting from the hospital and my birth support partner. 

I really wanted to avoid high- tech labor and birth and follow the natural plan. I relaxed and let my body do its thing.

As the labor progressed, my body was releasing increasing amounts of oxytocin which surged and the contractions grew stronger and painful. I was coping with labor using simple things i.e.  moving around and changing positions throughout labor. 

I was free to move  around because  I  wasn’t  hooked up to an IV or machine (EFM). The nurses were checking the progress and the fetal heartbeat from time to time without wiring me to the bed.

As my contractions became stronger my body’s Beta-Endorphins helped me to cope with pain.  I had  read that when Oxytocin surges and the contractions grow stronger and painful, this sends a pain signal to the brain to release Endorphins.

Endorphins are natural pain killers that decrease pain perception giving the woman and her uterus little rest. These endorphins were helping me find a rhythm as I was coping with contractions.

I was visualizing each contraction opening my cervix and my baby descending into the pelvis.

Labor was hard work and to keep up my energy levels and remain hydrated, I occasionally sipped on water. All these simple things helped me feel calm and controlled, letting the birth hormones do their wonders.

A few hours later I suddenly felt my belly muscles tightened and I had an urge to bear down without trying. The nurse came back in and did a quick exam. She told me that my cervix is fully open and therefore my body is telling me to push.

The happy ending for a beautiful beginning

As I saw the nurses started preparations for the arrival of the baby I felt a surge of energy.  I was alert  and ready to start working on getting the baby out. At the end of labor, a flood of catecholamines made me more alert and extremely strong to help push the baby out. 

Studies have shown that catecholamine also plays a critical role in readying the baby’s lungs for air-breathing immediately after birth by reducing the amount of fluid in the lungs. This hormone makes the newborn  baby very alert  and protects his  heart and brain during strong labor contractions.

My healthcare provider asked me to lie on the bed in a semi-reclining position and said “Don’t push. Just breathe”. With a few pushes, I could feel my baby’s body come out  and he  took his first breath of air.  The baby was born alert and ready to suckle because of the catecholamines in his body.

Seconds later, the nurse placed my son on my chest which increased oxytocin levels and helped me feel more relaxed and bonded with my son. Skin to Skin after birth also kept my baby  warm  and  his heartbeat stable. 

His head and hand movements stimulated my body to produce prolactin, which helped my breasts make milk. Oxytocin was also helping with the let-down reflex of breastmilk and it was a beautiful start to breastfeeding.

Each time my son used to latch on for breastfeeding, prolactin was entering my bloodstream  which is why I felt such a strong urge to care for and protect her baby.  Thinking  of those  endearing tenderness still throb my heart with joys.

Food for thought

With levels of Oxytocin, Catecholamines, and Prolactin sharply increasing around  the  time  of spontaneous onset of labor, it is clear that waiting for labor to begin on its own will result in both the mother and the fetus having optimal levels of these important birth hormones.

Here are some tips for avoiding unnecessary interventions:

  • Choose a care provider that promotes normal physiology of birth
  • Learn about the benefits of continuous labor support and consider engaging a doula
  • Know that you have the right to accept or  refuse  procedures,  drugs, tests and treatments, and to have your choices honored

The entire journey of being a mother is a learning process. It is extremely crucial to stay informed about one’s body. This is because, we, the mothers deal with a huge spectrum of physical changes and emotions. 

Staying informed about the granular details in the most  scientific  way is the best  bet  we all can opt for. Let’s enjoy this evolution together.

Cheers to Life! Cheers to motherhood!

Article Credits

Megha Khanduja