Birth hormones are amazing: they can lead you and your baby to a smooth birth experience. They will prepare you for every step along the way, from labor to breastfeeding and attachment. However, sometimes, obstacles make it difficult for your hormones to work properly. We will tell you how to remove these obstacles to let your body’s own birth hormones do their amazing work the way they are intended to. For you and your baby!
Birth hormones, what are they and what do they do?
Birth hormones are ‘chemical messengers’ that your body produces. Your baby produces them as well. These hormones work together to manage significant physical changes – changes that will make sure that labor and birth go smoothly and safely for the both of you. Birth hormones will help you and your baby in many ways, including:
- Preparing your body for birth
- Bringing on contractions
- Preparing your baby for labor and life outside the womb
- Telling your breasts to start producing breastmilk and preparing your baby to start nursing
You and your new baby falling in love, that also happens thanks to birth hormones!
Various hormones will help you during the birth and afterwards:
- oxytocin brings on contractions and helps generate feelings of love, peace, and connection with others.
- beta-endorphins help you release stress and cope with the pain of childbirth.
- catecholamines help you and your baby be alert and get ready for the birth. They also help protect your baby’s heart and brain during strong contractions.
- prolactin is named the ‘mother hormone’. It has several functions, such as helping your breasts produce breastmilk.
Which obstacles can hinder birth hormones?
Stress can significantly disrupt the functioning of birth hormones. Mother Nature is pretty clever: she wants you and your baby to be safe during the birth. Therefore, giving birth is easiest in a quiet, peaceful location with plenty of privacy. That is where you feel safe and protected so that is where it will be easiest for you to relax.
Unfortunately, care provided to women during labor, birth and the postpartum period can be stress-provoking. Your body may consider certain things to be threatening, even if you would barely notice them under normal circumstances. This may include bright lights, (a lot of) noise, medical instruments that are visible or (multiple) vaginal exams. You may also feel anxious about (various) staff members entering the room.
If your body does not experience the situation as safe, your birth hormones cannot work properly. This may slow down or even stop your contractions.
After hospital birth, nursing staff may take your baby for routine checks. This can be a rather stressful experience for you and your baby; you have spent all this time together and now all of a sudden you are separated. Your baby’s stress may cause their body temperature and blood sugar to drop. In addition, the stress caused by an early separation after birth also complicates the first attempts at breastfeeding. Therefore, it is best to ask for routine care to be delayed, and for checks to be done after you have had a few hours to get to know one another. Another possibility is bedside care, so the baby remains close to you.
Do medical tests and other treatments influence birth hormones?
Yes! That is why it is important to distinguish medical interventions for serious issues from interventions that do not necessarily benefit mother and baby. If the former, it is important to realize that tests and treatments may be the best way to keep you safe and healthy even if it hinders the birth hormones.
However, sometimes healthcare providers also administer tests or treatments out of habit, or because these tests and treatments facilitate their work. For example, they may administer medication to speed up the birth, even if mother and baby are healthy and labor is progressing safely, at their own pace. This medication may hinder birth hormones and even cause issues that complicate labor and birth rather than making it easier. One example is a saline lock (an IV) in your arm, that is inserted ‘just to be sure’. During normal labor, even such a simple intervention may undermine your confidence and the processes that are taking place in your body, despite being done with the best of intentions.
We urge you, therefore, to ask questions before you agree to any intervention, or to ask your partner, before labor, to ask these questions should the need arise. What is going on? Is it serious? Is it necessary? What treatment options are there? What problem should this treatment option solve?
How can I avoid stress if a medical intervention is necessary?
If you or your baby are experiencing a medical problem, LISTEN to your midwife or your doctor. In some cases, interventions may be necessary to ensure your and your baby’s safety – even if the intervention disrupts the functioning of birth hormones.
Fortunately, there are things you can do to benefit from your birth hormones as much as possible, even if intervention is required.
If labor needs to be induced, ask if it is safe to wait until your cervix is soft (‘effaced’) and ready for birth. If this is not the case, there is a significant possibility of your induction ending in a cesarean section.
If you need a scheduled c-section, ask if it is possible to delay it until labor starts naturally. With a natural start of labor, birth hormones are released, so if you wait, you and your baby can still benefit from these hormones.
In all cases, ask if they will put your baby skin-to-skin on your chest (even after a c-section) and if the baby can stay close to you for the rest of your hospital stay.
If your baby needs to go to a different unit for specialized care, try to touch your baby, hold them, nurse them, and talk to them as much as possible while they’re there. Ask whether kangaroo care is an option, which means that you get to hold your naked baby against your bare skin.
If you have had any medical interventions, also take care of yourself and your own body! Be patient in the days after the birth. Having a baby is quite the effort and your body needs time to recover. Rest as much as you can. During these first few days, focus on getting to know your baby and adjusting to your new life. That will take a lot of energy, so other than that rest, rest, and more rest is the motto.
Why don’t ALL birth workers try to support birth hormones?
Researchers continue to find new information about how birth hormones function. However, it takes time for new knowledge to find its way to the hospitals and healthcare providers and for them to change their way of working.
Currently, many people in maternity care have not yet learned just how important birth hormones are and how the production of these hormones can be stimulated. Some people may not be aware of how they can help those hormones flow in your and your baby’s body, or they may be unaware that certain actions may actually impede the flow of hormones.
Of course, hospitals and healthcare providers want to provide the best of care, but any changes or improvements to that care do take a lot of time. Unfortunately, this also means that some women will not receive care that supports the naturally occurring processes in a healthy labor, delivery, and attachment.
What can I do to stimulate those birth hormones?
Even before birth, give your body time, rest, and attention. This allows you to save your energy for the birth and optimizes the circumstances for a safe, healthy, vaginal birth.
Be patient with yourself and your body in the days after the birth. Having a baby is quite the effort and your body needs time to recover. Therefore, rest as much as you can. During these first few days, focus on getting to know your baby and adjusting to your new life. That will take a lot of energy, so other than that rest, rest, and more rest is the motto.
It is entirely normal for you and your baby to need time to get used to nursing, even if you have done it before. Your baby is always new to nursing. Have patience if it takes your little one a while to get going; stress or frustration will hinder your production of breastmilk. Do watch out for red flags, however: call your midwife or a lactation consultant if you have any doubts or if you or your baby are in pain or have a fever. Don’t just think that it will pass. Timely support can keep minor problems from becoming major problems!
How do I choose care providers who will support my birth hormones?
Read birth stories on birthmatters.be. These stories will show you how the right care can help birth hormones do their work. In addition, they may inspire you about what you are looking for and what you would want.
Also talk to other women about their experiences with hospitals, birth centers and midwifery practices in the area. They have been through it all!
In addition, you can ask your midwife or your physician many questions to make sure that you receive the care that you want. You can find a long list below.
Questions to ask your midwife or physician:
- How do you support the natural birth hormones that will help me and my baby during labor, delivery, nursing, and attachment?
- How will you avoid hindering the flow of birth hormones?
- Which medical procedures or treatments will be used during labor and delivery, and how will you monitor me and my baby? (If the physician or midwife always performs standard procedures or treatments or recommends them, you can wonder whether this is the right care provider for you.)
- In which cases would you recommend an induction and why?
- When would you recommend a c-section and why?
Keep in mind that midwives have generally received more training about and have more experience with working with birth hormones than physicians, although there may be exceptions.
Have you found the right physician or midwife? Very good! Just keep in mind that you do not have full control over who will attend the birth. It is wise to inquire beforehand about the colleagues that your preferred care provider works with. This increases your chances of having the birth attendant be someone who subscribes to the same insights and philosophy. It is a good idea to meet these people as well, before the birth.
Tips for choosing where you will give birth
Find a place where:
…there are no protocols stating that all women must have IV access.
…you will be allowed to move during labor and while pushing, and where there are tools to try out various positions (for example: a birthing stool, a rope or sling attached to the ceiling for you to hang onto, a bath).
…your baby will be put on your chest as soon as possible, skin-to-skin, and where you will be allowed to stay together.
…you will be supported right after the birth to help your baby find your breast.
Of course, you can also ask your preferred midwife or physician for advice on finding the right location. They usually work with one or several hospitals. In addition, you could talk to your care provider to see if you would like to give birth at home. Many women who want to give birth at home choose to do so because of the peace and quiet they experience being in familiar surrounding, which helps their birth hormones flow.
The website for the hospital, birth center of midwifery practice will usually have more information about the approach they use during labor and birth. Most locations will also organize regular tours.
Questions to ask during a hospital tour:
- What percentage of women will have an IV inserted?
- What percentage of women will have an epidural?
- Can I remain active during labor, or will I be put on continuous monitoring? Is it mandatory?
- Which birth support measures are available during the pushing stage? For example, a birthing stool, bath, ball, etc.
- Will my baby be put on my stomach immediately after the birth? Can we have at least an hour of undisturbed skin-to-skin time?
- How does this happen if I have a cesarean section? What percentage of women who give birth at your hospital have an (unplanned ) c-section? Can the baby remain skin-to-skin with me in the recovery room?
- What do you do to support the start of breastfeeding?
A few more tips:
-Take a prenatal course to learn how to manage pain, physical exertion and emotions during labor and birth, without medication.
-Consider hiring a doula. A doula is a woman who is specifically trained to support women during labor and birth and who will advocate for their wishes and interests. She can help you feel more confident, comfortable, and relaxed.
-If you and your baby are healthy, wait for labor to start naturally. During the first part of labor, remain in contact with your care provider about staying home until your contractions are strong and regular. Spending less time in the hospital may reduce the possibility of unnecessary medication or medical interventions.
-Try to personalize your hospital or birth center room as much as possible. Wear your own clothes or pajamas, bring your own pillow. Make a playlist with your favorite (and don’t forget your headphones!) Dim the lights, keep the door closed. Put a sign on the door asking people to knock gently before entering the room.
-If a nurse or care provider proposes tests or treatments, or if they restrict your movement or will not let you drink during labor, ask: Why? What are the benefits and the disadvantages of what you propose? Is there anything else you can try? If so, what are the benefits and the disadvantages of those options? What are the benefits and the disadvantages of watchful waiting, to see what happens? Don’t forget that you have a right to clear information about the available options. You have a voice in what happens to you and your baby.