Oxytocin v. Pitocin
Oxytocin - Nature's Love Hormone
Birth is a physiological process with natural hormonal changes occurring during pregnancy, labor and birth. Oxytocin, commonly referred to as the love hormone, plays a major role in the process of labor and birth. It’s produced in the hypothalamus and is stored at the rear of the pituitary gland. Oxytocin helps us bond and feel connected.
The Role of Oxytocin During Labor
Known as a uterotonic hormone, oxytocin is mainly responsible for contractions during labor. The brain signals oxytocin to the uterus which results in the pushing, pulling and squeezing of a contraction. After a brief amount of time, lasting from seconds to about a minute in duration, the effect and the efficacy of the oxytocin wanes and the uterus rests, giving a laboring mamma respite. Several minutes later, the brain again directs oxytocin to the uterus to contract once more. This process continues until Baby is born. Intermittent contractions permit a woman and her body to gradually move through the process and slowly adapt and change to the increasing intensity and demands of labor. Throughout, oxytocin is released into the bloodstream in pulses. The oxytocin receptors in a laboring woman’s uterus are highly sensitive. In addition, Baby releases oxytocin throughout the process as well. Also, as Baby further descends, even more oxytocin is released from mama’s pituitary gland, thus creating a “positive feedback loop” known as the Ferguson Reflex. Oxytocin’s uterotonic quality also supports the birth of the placenta, referred to as the afterbirth, and helps the uterus heal postpartum.
The Early Days of Motherhood
New mom and Baby experience their highest levels of oxytocin about 30 minutes after birth. Baby maintains high levels of oxytocin for up to four days after birth. This is a special and sacred time for mother and child, a time for optimal bonding. Oxytocin is found in breast milk and is one of the hormones responsible for the “let down” reflex. Studies indicate that oxytocin, produced during breastfeeding and known to stimulate the parasympathetic nervous system, has been shown to lower heart rate and reduce blood pressure. A nursing mother is often calm and relaxed, according to research. (Buckley, Sarah M.D. Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering).
What is Pitocin?
Medical interventions attempt to simulate the natural process. A common intervention is pitocin which is a form of synthetic oxytocin. It’s often used to induce and/or speed up labor. It may be advised if a woman’s waters have broken and she hasn’t begun contracting. It may be advised if a woman is overdue, and there may be some risk to the mother or her baby's health. Unlike oxytocin, however, pitocin is administered in a steady stream. Due to its lack of pulsatile pattern, its intensity is strong and constant. Unlike with the natural process, a woman’s body isn’t given time to gradually open up which makes it essentially intolerable. With pitocin, most often comes an epidural, an anesthetic that produces a loss of sensation below the waist and thus dulls the intensity of contractions. Pitocin is also often administered after birth to prevent hemorrhaging, mimicking the function of oxytocin. Medical professionals indicate that pitocin functions similarly to oxytocin and that it doesn’t enter Baby’s bloodstream. That doesn't seem accurate to this doula.
Do this now:
It’s important to understand the distinction between oxytocin and pitocin, and to discuss it with your doctor, during your pregnancy, before labor even begins. Become informed. Know your options. To help you decipher your medical options amid the jargon, consider doula care. Receive the support you need to create the birth you deserve.