Oxytocin, Endorphins & the Sexuality of Birth
“Weak, irregular contractions started immediately after we had made love. When I sucked her nipples they got much stronger. I worked out that I could keep the contractions going by touching or licking her nipples about every ten minutes. Then she got up and walked around a little and I think that helped. But she was tired and wanted to get some sleep before starting, so I kept contractions going with nipple stimulation and she dozed between them. It was hard work, but I enjoyed it. I felt really useful because it was obvious it was helping the labor.
This is an excerpt from Sheila Kitzinger’s book, Woman’s Experience of Sex: The Facts & Feelings of Female Sexuality at Every Stage of Life, first published in 1983. Many midwives promote emotional and physical intimacy as a way to create a relaxed and nurturing tone for birth, to help get a labor started and to keep it moving smoothly.
The basis for this wisdom starts with two major hormones released from the brain during birth and sex: oxytocin and endorphins. Oxytocin and endorphins are present in both women and men when we experience feelings of love and altruism or when kissing, fooling around and having sex.
In her article “Healing Birth, Healing Earth,” Sarah J. Buckley MD, writes “these passionate hormones are not just feel-good add-ons. They actually orchestrate the physical processes of birth (and sexual activity) and enhance efficiency, safety and ease for both mother and baby. What are the implications for a society whose women move toward their births with trust and confidence in their bodies and the possibility of ease and pleasure in their minds?
Oxytocin is secreted by the hypothalamus and stored in the posterior pituitary gland until it enters the bloodstream in pulses. Oxytocin levels in a woman’s body increase throughout pregnancy and peak at the moment of birth. This “love hormone” causes the surges (otherwise known as contractions) that signify labor which, in turn, open the cervix and nudge baby down the birth path. Nipple stimulation can be used at any point during a birth to keep oxytocin flowing and surges (contractions) coming. Breastfeeding also causes the release of oxytocin, so putting a newborn baby to breast not only enhances the bonding experience, but helps mom birth the placenta. High levels of oxytocin after birth increase the likelihood of strong surges to support the timely release of the placenta, reducing the risk of postpartum hemorrhage.
Beta-endorphins, released by the brain during times of stress or pain, act as our body’s natural pain relievers. Often compared to morphine, endorphins help the body to relax and are responsible for the altered state many women experience during natural childbirth. “Hormones of pleasure and transcendence, as Buckley calls them, endorphins contribute to a sense of euphoria during and after birth, and may even support a women in following her birthing instincts.
Given this information, it makes sense that naturally supporting the production of these hormones through kissing, nipple and clitoral stimulation, and orgasm could provide valuable support for a birthing woman. As our society continues to explore what truly creates a more satisfying and safe birth for momma and baby, knowledge of the hormones released within the birthing body (and how to work with them) are key. As midwife and teacher, Ina May Gaskin, repeatedly shares in her work, “The same energy that gets the baby in, gets the baby out.”