The Love Hormone

Did you know that the hormone oxytocin is responsible for the powerful feeling of falling in love? This hormone also creates surges (also known as contractions) during labour. In fact, if your midwife or doctor wants to speed up your labour, they will probably recommend that you be given artificial oxytocin to make your surges stronger.

So, why am I telling you this? Why is it important? It’s important because our environment, and how we are treated, affect the hormones your brain will release. When we hear sudden, loud noises, this could mean we are in danger, so our brain releases stress hormones that help us be stronger and faster to keep us safe. Our habits can help us to release certain hormones too. When we dim the lights, and engage in routine activities while we get ready for bed, our brain releases relaxation hormones that help us to fall asleep. When we wake up in the morning, we have a routine that mildly stimulates stress hormones (caffeine for example) which makes us feel alert and ready for work.

During birth we need an environment that will help us release oxytocin. So what does that look like? Soft music, dim lights, privacy, whispering voices… Does this sound more like a nice romantic evening than a birth? The truth is, the kinds of things that make us feel warm, safe and loved, are the things that cause our brains to release oxytocin. In fact, oxytocin is what creates those good feelings! Do you think you would like to have sex in a room lit with right fluorescent lights, where people you don’t know come in and ask you questions in the middle of it, or tell you what position to be in? Probably not. It would break “the mood”, right? Well, what we call “the mood” is caused by our brain releasing oxytocin.

It’s important to understand that if you are given oxytocin through an IV, it doesn’t have the same emotional effects that are caused by oxytocin released by our brains. This is due to the protective blood/brain barrier that prevents substances from crossing from the blood into the brain. When we produce our own oxytocin, it originates in the brain and crosses over into the blood, producing emotional and physical effects at the same time. In addition, when oxytocin is given artificially; our body detects the higher levels and reduces our own production of this hormone.

Since this hormone is necessary to give you that “falling in love” feeling towards your baby, it is not uncommon for people to have a sense of separation or alienation from their baby if they are low in oxytocin due to having been given artificial oxytocin or having had a traumatic birth experience. Often parents feel a lot of guilt if they don’t immediately bond with their baby. Aren’t we supposed to instantly fall in love with our babies? In a perfect world the answer is ‘yes’ but we live in the real world where sometimes conditions are not optimal for our brains to produce enough oxytocin. But there are things that you can do.

First, realize that this is not your fault and it does not mean that you are a bad parent. Second, get plenty of support. You need a good shoulder to cry on, plenty of rest and people to look after you. Spend time skin to skin with your baby; this is a powerful way to stimulate oxytocin production.  Limit visitors to those you feel safe with and who make you feel loved. Spend time gazing at your baby. Hang out in bed and don’t put pressure on yourself to feel a certain way. Those warm, falling in love feelings will grow over time. If you are concerned, talk with your midwife or doctor about your feelings or check out our checklist for Postpartum Depression.