Oxytocin: The LOVE drug

Photography: Bloom and Blossom Studio

By Amy Sherpa

Have you ever wondered why, no matter how many babies you have, you never quite feel complete and ponder over the possibility of another? This is an addiction to the feel good hormone, oxytocin. This powerful hormone has the important job of reproductive success and species survival: nature’s way of patting you on the back and telling you, “Good job. Have more babies.”

Making babies, having babies and feeding babies. Oxytocin is produced during sexual activity and orgasms; its analgesic properties are helpful in labour and birth; and its release is triggered in both mother and baby when a baby suckles at the breast.

Alternatively, most of us know what it feels like to experience the fight or flight response, and it’s not what you would describe as desirable – a pounding, racing heartbeat, cool sweaty skin and hyperarousal. These symptoms present through a stress response which is activated by the sympathetic nervous system, with intertwined hormones adrenaline and noradrenaline producing cortisol. These responses are very much tied in with labour, which can be painful and stressful. Stress hormones during childbirth can either slow down or accelerate labour depending on the stage. Historically, this response was important for survival: if you were giving birth in the wild and there was a threat to your survival (such as a sabre-toothed tiger suddenly appearing!), you would have an outpouring of stress hormones, and blood would be shifted away from your placenta to your vital organs. As a result, labour would stop so you could run away to safety where labour could resume. However, if you were in the final stages of labour when the tiger appeared, you could not run so it makes biological sense that these hormones at this latter stage would assist with giving birth quickly, so you could scoop up your baby and run to safety.

Oxytocin in this sense is just the opposite: activating the parasympathetic nervous system, encouraging relaxation and growth, a feeling of calmness safety and security which promotes bonding and attachment. After having a baby you quickly forget about the associated pain and stress and immediately begin to bond with your baby; oxytocin’s side effects present as that lovely hot flush that new mothers get and baby is wide-eyed ready to bond. Activation of the reward, pleasure and motivation centres is happening during this time. No other mammals attend antenatal classes to be told how to care for their baby, so there needs to be a hormonal system in place to kick in straight after births so that mother finds contact with her baby very rewarding. Mother Nature rewards you for the dedication to caring for your baby for maximal chance of mother and baby survival, and species survival. It’s not hard to see why this hormonal system has been selected for during mammalian evolution.

Breastfeeding on demand is how you can keep your baby’s sympathetic nervous system dialled down and prevent activation of the fight or flight response. This is especially important during the first 4-6 months of a baby’s life, during the phase of high neurological sensitivity. Oxytocin is working its magic – mother feels an overwhelming need to protect, provide and nurture her baby, making her feel good, and this motivates her to keep doing what she is doing. Baby feels safe and secure and remains calm when it has all its needs met, including feeling satiated with a tummy full of creamy milk and sensory nourishment through physical contact. Babies that receive plenty of physical contact with their caregiver cry less and breastfeed for a longer duration.

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