The word oxytocin, which literally means “quick birth” in Greek, speaks of its best understood role as a facilitator of childbirth and breastfeeding.
First discovered in 1909, when Sir Henry Dale learned that an extract from the human pituitary gland caused a pregnant cat’s uterus to contract, synthetic oxytocin soon became doctors’ go-to drug to help human labor progress.
Now Pitocin – the brand name for synthetic oxytocin – is the drug most commonly used to help induce labor in the United States, according to Chemical and Engineering News, and is its only commonly approved medical use.
“The evolutionary roots of oxytocin go back to childbirth and helped reptiles squeeze out their eggs,” says Dr. Kai MacDonald, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at the University of California-San Diego and an oxytocin researcher. “The broadest view of its role is in birth and the bond between birther and child.”
Because women have more oxytocin receptors at childbirth than at any other point in their lives – a number climbing to 300 times normal amounts – their bodies are primed to respond to the large amounts of oxytocin released in the brain during labor.
Oxytocin greatly intensifies the uterine contractions that open the cervix during birth, allowing the passage of the baby through the birth canal. Even after the baby arrives, the hormone continues to stimulate contractions that discourage the uterus from hemorrhaging from the detachment of the baby’s placenta.
But its work doesn’t stop there.
“Right after birth, when baby is placed skin-to-skin on his mother, the baby’s weight on her uterus, his head and hand movements and then his suckling all release oxytocin,” according to the Winter 2005 issue of The Journal of Perinatal Education.
Even more oxytocin is released when the nipples are stimulated by the baby’s mouth, promoting the letdown of milk into the nipples. According to PsychCentral, the infant’s sucking motions relays signals through spinal nerves to the brain, spurring intermittent oxytocin bursts into the bloodstream.
Oxytocin even increases blood flow to the breast, which not only contributes to the surge of nutrients from blood into the milk but also helps warm the mother’s skin in order to keep her baby warm, according to the La Leche League, an international breastfeeding advocacy organization.
All of this serves to enhance the budding bond between mother and infant, benefiting both. While the baby gets the nutrition and care necessary for its survival, oxytocin promotes a feeling of calm in his mother and increases her tolerance for lingering childbirth pain, according to the La Leche League.
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Written by Maureen Salamon. For more information contact Bryan Post, Managing Editor of Oxytocin Central firstname.lastname@example.org or call (405) 476-1983