Most people entering their parenting journey have heard about oxytocin. The word is readily passed around, as it is intertwined with many of our early parenting physiological and neurological functions. According to a relatively recent article in Nature Magazine, oxytocin has been incorrectly labeled as the ‘love’ or ‘cuddle’ hormone.1
This is true – oxytocin is a very complex hormone that cannot be so easily reduced. However, it does play a major role (in combination with other hormones) in many of our daily ‘love’ and ‘happiness’ interactions, particularly sex, childbirth and many areas of parenthood, including bonding.
There’s no need to know the in-depth particulars of oxytocin. But knowing the basics of how it affects us can help us better understand and empathize with our own behavior. It may also help us understand and achieve a stronger attachment with our children and families.
What is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin is released by the pineal gland and plays a role in many essential life processes, helping to lay the foundation for healthy relationships. Because it is a neurotransmitter, it affects our bodies and our brains. It plays a meaningful role in sex, birth, postpartum recovery, breastfeeding and bonding.
Ideally, we should hope for large releases of oxytocin, but the exact amount needed will vary depending on what physiological action is occurring. Oxytocin is primarily stimulated through touch, but it is also released (in those ideal large amounts) in childbirth, during contractions, as the cervix effaces and dilates. While birth is a time when we will experience the largest surge of oxytocin, it is important to note that it is not released all at once. The body is able to adapt to the hormonal shifts, as it happens gradually across a person’s birth experience.
We also get a surge of oxytocin released through something as simple as a hug – studies have recently shown that hugging for at least 30 seconds will give your body the boost of oxytocin that it craves. I know this seems short, but try it out. It feels long at first and then it feels so good!
Can We Influence Oxytocin?
It’s amazing to consider that while there is so much research on the body and our hormones, we haven’t gotten to the bottom of how these processes truly work! While the particulars of oxytocin is dependent on individuals and their makeup, it is known that the right balance is essential for our bodies and brains to achieve so called ‘successful’ experiences (I say that with caution – successful is not a term that is one size fits all).
So how can we influence our bodies’ ability to release oxytocin?
Touch. Any sort of positive and accepted touch can help. This could include massages, hugs, hand holding and cuddling with your partner. Take the time to make your hugs a bit longer, and/or schedule in an extra massage, to get your daily fix.
Nipple stimulation. There is a reason why this is sold as a natural labour induction method – it can really work. The release of oxytocin is known to be essential to the birth experience, as it encourages effacement and dilation of the cervix.
When breastfeeding (or pumping), your baby will be stimulating your nipples and in turn sending messages to your brain to release oxytocin. This will tell your body to ‘let down’ your milk. Often, the ‘let down’ is accompanied by feelings of happiness and calm.
If you are choosing not to, or cannot breastfeed, there are other ways to encourage the release of oxytocin, and encourage these positive feelings. Holding your baby close while bottle feeding, baby wearing, sleeping near your baby, and cuddling and holding your baby, will also help.
Relaxation and Overall Health. Oxytocin will help create a relaxed state, but only if you help pave the way. Breathing, self care, yoga, exercise, sleep, and healthy eating can also influence our body’s ability to cue the release. And once it’s released, those feelings of relaxation are amplified.
Environment.2 When placed in a stressful situation, our body enters survival mode, and cues for oxytocin are inhibited. It is well known that stress and fear can deeply affect birth, breastfeeding and bonding. There are a wide range of methods and support networks that can help encourage more comfortable and conducive environments. This may include birth and postpartum doula support, lactation consultants, mom groups, appropriate self care, and calling on your village to help nurture you through your parenting journey.
Take home message
In our current fast paced society, we often look to find simple and easy to digest information. Yet, it’s important to remember that our bodies, and brains, are complex. Nothing acts in isolation – there’s an array of hormones and external factors affecting our bodies, during pregnancy, birth and the postpartum period.
We don’t have to know every detail about oxytocin. But it is useful to know how this hormone affects us and how we can affect its release, to encourage more satisfactory sex, birthing, and bonding experiences. While we can’t solve everything with a 30 second hug there truly is no harm in adding and lengthening the hugs in your day. Trust me – you’ll be grateful for the extra love.
Kate is a Birth and Postpartum Doula, Childbirth Educator, Infant Sleep Educator and Yoga Instructor, currently living in Toronto, ON. When she’s not supporting new families on their parenting journey, she is running after her wonderfully active 2-year-old twins. She loves exploring the ravines of the city, drinking green tea and green smoothies (in large mugs), and the colour purple.