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Understanding The Power of Pregnancy Hormones: Labour, Birth & Breastfeeding

Updated: Feb 16

Your beautiful body is hardwired to reproduce! From conception, labour, birth and breastfeeding, you have many naturally occurring helpers who have your back. The most important helpers are your Hormones. You should be aware of four main hormones and know-how, when and why they are there to support both you and your baby through this journey and the benefits of working with them to enhance your experience. These are Oxytocin, Endorphins, Adrenaline and Prolactin.

To learn all about Birth and practical birth techniques, book into our fun, comprehensive and positive Birth Masterclass or for key points to note, download our Expert Guide.

To learn about how to care for your baby and breastfeeding, book in to our in-person Baby and Breastfeeding Masterclass.

What hormones are released during pregnancy?

​The ‘cocktail’ of hormones for pregnancy and birth are chemical messengers that travel through both you and your baby’s bloodstream to initiate labour, continue the surges of your contractions, provide pain relief for you as your labour progresses, give you the energy to push your baby into the world, and to help you both learn to breastfeed together.

Each of the four important hormones will be explained, as you need to understand how they can help you and how they may hinder your labour progression if the natural process is disrupted.

What is oxytocin

​This is your LOVE hormone, the one that is released when you feel loved, cared for, and appreciated and when you feel a profoundly positive emotional connection to another person. It is released during a warm embrace through to intimacy and orgasm. Not surprisingly, it is the main hormone that is released at the beginning of your labour to signal your uterus to contract and will continue to flow as your contractions become stronger, longer and closer together. This will cause your cervix to dilate, your baby will move down through your pelvis, and you will feel the overwhelming urge to push, where it will peak when both and your baby meet for the first time!

Nature has designed this amazing hormone to allow you both to fall in love with each other at first sight!

How to increase oxytocin

  • Embrace your knowledge of this incredible hormone and trust in its ability to help you

  • Create a birthing environment that is private, warm, safe, relaxing, quiet, loving and positive

  • Choose your birth support people wisely; surround yourself with those you love and who love you, and who understand your preferences for labour and birth

  • Avoid stress, tension or any disruption to the flow of Oxytocin.

How Oxytocin may be hindered

  • Fear of labour and birth – perhaps through hearing negative birth stories from others, a lack of knowledge, and therefore a lack of options

  • Unfamiliar carers and environment (noise, language used, privacy)

  • Stress and/or anxiety

  • Restrictions on movement and eating/drinking

  • Not feeling listened to or respected

  • Medical interventions – artificial induction of labour, medications, cervical examinations, IV fluids, caesarean birth. While things may not go the way you hoped they would always follow the advice of your healthcare practitioner.

What are endorphins

​Endorphins are known as your happy hormones because when they are released, you feel calmer and have a sense of general well-being. They are released when you smile and are responsible for your post-exercise happy mood! You may have heard about the addiction some get to exercise – they want their endorphin fixed! So again, you need to thank your body because Endorphins are released in response to your rising levels of Oxytocin as they know your body is contracting and working hard. They are strong natural pain relievers and can help calm you down as labour intensifies. They are also released during breastfeeding to relax you as you watch your baby breastfeed.

How to increase Endorphins during pregnancy

  • Trust in the natural process of labour and connect with your body

  • Provide comfort measures, move and change positions, and use gravity to help you cope with your contractions

  • Surround yourself with your favourite people to create the mood and environment you want

How Endorphins may be hindered

  • Similar conditions as low levels of Oxytocin (see above)

  • Medical Intervention/medication (see above)

What is Adrenaline

Adrenaline is known as your ‘Fight or Flight’ stress hormone. If you feel threatened or in danger, this hormone gives you the strength and courage to protect yourself the best way it knows how. An example would be if you needed to run away from danger, your legs would take over before you even knew it!

We all need adrenaline in our lives, which also plays a vital role in labour and birth. However, it should be saved and released during the final stages of your birth to help you regain strength and clarity during your baby's pushing stage and birth. However, Adrenalin should be kept to minimal levels during your labour while your Oxytocin and Endorphins take you on a positive ride.

Unfortunately, fear, pain, stress or panic increase levels of Adrenaline which cause Oxytocin to be reduced or even stopped. This makes perfect sense because your body will protect itself if it feels threatened; however, during labour and birth, you need to be relaxed, calm and open.

How to release Adrenaline labour

  • Let go of fear and continue to trust your body and what it knows how to do

  • Prepare for your best birth experience through knowledge, confidence, self-trust

  • Avoid any risks of feeling scared, fearful or out of control e.g. attend childbirth classes, take a tour of the birth facility you will be attending, discuss your fears with your care providers, create a plan of what you would prefer during your labour and birth, ask lots of questions.

  • Understand the important relationship between your hormones

How your Adrenaline may be hindered

  • Stay calm, relaxed and be mentally and emotionally ready for birth

  • Embrace your Oxytocin!

  • Make informed decisions about how you want to be treated and cared for in labour and birth

  • Communicate openly and honestly to your support people regarding your ideal birth environment

What is Prolactin

​Prolactin is often referred to as the ‘mothering’ hormone, as its levels gradually increase throughout pregnancy and peak after the birth of your baby to assist in breastmilk production primarily. A positive pairing of Prolactin and Oxytocin occurs during breastfeeding to enhance the mother and baby's loving feelings and emotional development.

How to increase Prolactin

  • Keep your baby skin to skin on your chest in the first hour after birth

  • Demand feed your baby – there’s no ‘routine’ in the first few months of parenthood

  • Seek advice and help – knowledge will help you to gain more confidence with breastfeeding

  • Relax and enjoy the time you spend with your baby during breastfeeding

  • Include your partner in supporting your breastfeeding journey – you are not alone

  • Trust in your amazing body – just like in labour and birth, it is helping you!

How your Prolactin may be hindered

  • If you are induced with artificial Oxytocin (SyntocinonTM) there is an interruption in the natural release of Oxytocin and Endorphins, so your body doesn’t realise it is in labour. This will slow the release of Prolactin

  • Being separated from your baby, or if breastfeeding is delayed after birth

  • Stress can reduce the release of Prolactin, so again, follow the above advice to encourage a positive environment during your breastfeeding journey.

Narelle is a passionate Midwife who cares holistically for couples and nurtures women in the lead-up to birth and beyond. She is a certified Childbirth Educator specialising in Lamaze (birthing with confidence) and pregnancy and post-natal massage expert. She teaches positive birthing in our Parents You've Got This in-person Birth Class.

Please refer to the resources below for more information:

Dr Sarah Buckley Buckley, S. (2005) “Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering”

Mother learning to breastfeed newborn after childbirth


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