If you are expecting a little bundle of joy, there is one thing that you have almost certainly noticed: your body changes during pregnancy in a way that you have never experienced before. Naturally, your growing baby bump is new, but actually there’s a lot more to pregnancy than loosing sight of your waistline and feeling those heavy ankles.
Did you know that there is a very specific reason why your breasts get larger, and even why you get powerful and oh so painful contractions during labour? It’s all to do with hormones. Specifically, we are referring to prolactin and oxytocin, two of the main pregnancy and postpartum hormones. Sometimes you may even see them being referred to as “pro-pregnancy hormones”.
Are you interested to find out more about these, and why you should pay attention to your hormones during pregnancy and beyond? Read on!
Let’s talk about Oxytocin…
Let’s begin with oxytocin, the so-called “love hormone”. Unlike chemicals such as human chorionic gonadotropin which sounds the pregnancy alarm and is measured by those sticks we need to pee on, and placental growth factor which is in charge of your baby’s nutrient availability, oxytocin is not a pregnancy-specific hormone. This means that our bodies naturally produce oxytocin in other stages of our lives, too, and not exclusively in pregnancy.
The organ responsible for the creation of oxytocin is the hypothalamus, located deep in the brain.
While oxytocin is present during your entire pregnancy, its’ levels tend to soar the closer you get to childbirth. This is because oxytocin is essential for your body to give birth: it stimulates the contractions preparing your body for birth by dilating your cervix and allowing your baby to be born with less trauma. You’ve probably heard your midwife talk about the calm and safe birthing bubble, which has everything to do with oxytocin development.
The importance of oxytocin doesn’t end after your baby is born. In fact, this hormone continues to be essential in the post-partum period, and it affects several aspects of your physiology, including lactation, uterine size, and the bond between mother and child. And it’s largely responsible for that overwhelming love you sometimes don’t know how to deal with. Baby smell, baby noises, or just looking or touching your baby, even thinking about them, can momentarily push up your oxytocin levels.
After delivery, oxytocin levels stabilise, enabling your uterus to shrink back to its pre-pregnancy size. Don’t expect this to be a quick and easy process! It took 9 months for your uterus to grow to accommodate baby, so it makes sense that recovery may take equally long. Because it can take many months, and nobody told you but especially in the beginning of postpartum, it can feel like your contractions keep going because your uterus is shrinking.
Postpartum oxytocin also helps to promote milk production in your breasts, although the real hero there is prolactin.
Last but definitely not least, one of the major roles of oxytocin after your baby’s birth is its ability to help you create a stronger mother-baby bond. How can you encourage this to this happen, you may wonder?
As it’s known to be the hormone most closely associated with feelings of love, nurture, and care, to up its levels you’ll want to engage in activities that promote such emotions. One of the best ones is, without any doubt, indulging in a lot of skin-to-skin time with your little one. Seeing dad bonding with baby will also generate feelings of love and happiness, which in turn will naturally help to raise levels of oxytocin.
Inducing labour: What is Pitocin?
Sometimes, soon before or during labour, things don’t seem to be moving along quickly enough. For this reason, some medical professionals may offer you an injection of synthetic oxytocin to induce labour.
Its actual name is Pitocin and, as a chemical that’s not naturally produced by our bodies, it can have both positive and negative effects on you and your baby. Synthesised love can be a wild thing!
Pitocin can help to speed things up during labour, by enabling stronger and more frequent contractions, thus allowing you to deliver your baby more quickly. This can, for example, prevent you from having to undergo an emergency caesarean section. It can also be used to control postpartum bleeding or haemorrhaging.
On the downside, though, it can cause you to overstimulate your uterus, or generate distress in your baby. It can also induce excessive bleeding after birth, cause high blood pressure and even affect your heart rate dangerously.
Before agreeing to a Pitocin induction, it’s essential that you speak to your midwife or doctor and weigh up the pros and cons very carefully. If your midwife or doctor doesn't bring up Pitocin and other potentially necessary medications, bring them up during a visit yourself. It's important that you know in what situations medication would be used, risks and benefits, and outcomes. You should also consider your own specific circumstances, birth wishes, and any health complications: don’t simply do it because a friend or relative did. During and after pregnancy, advocating for yourself and your baby is one of your best weapons that can enable both of you to stay safe and well looked after. It might be a good idea to include in your birth plan!
And what about Prolactin?
Another very important hormone during and after pregnancy is prolactin. You don’t have to be a Latin student to grasp the meaning of this word: it “pro”motes “lact”ation. This is precisely what prolactin does: it helps you produce the milk that you are going to need in a few short months (or weeks) to feed your baby.
Prolactin is also the hormone responsible for one of the main (and sometimes most welcome!) physical changes during pregnancy: larger breasts. But ups must have downs, so be aware that it also stimulates hair growth. Everywhere. While your hair can feel and look luscious, be prepared to accept random long hormonal hairs around your face and belly, among other places.
This happens because prolactin makes your adrenal glands work a lot harder and these, in turn, stimulate your follicles to produce more hair. Don’t worry, though, as this is only temporary: it takes around six months postpartum for your body to lose all that hair.
Just like oxytocin and several other hormones, prolactin is secreted by the pituitary gland in the brain.
Prolactin during pregnancy…
During pregnancy, prolactin prepares your body to feed your baby. How, you may wonder? By stimulating your mammary glands to produce first colostrum, that first nutrient-rich form of milk, followed by regular breastmilk.
Sometimes, as early as the end of your second trimester of pregnancy, you might notice that you have started leaking some clear, odourless liquid from your breast. This is colostrum, the first type of milk that your body produces during pregnancy and straight after your baby’s birth. And if you’re leaking like you wouldn’t believe, grab a set of Curved Bamboo Nursing Pads!
Keep in mind though, that some healthcare providers recommend collecting the colostrum that you are leaking throughout your pregnancy by using small syringes. You can then store it in sterile containers and freeze it, ready for when your baby is born. If you feel like this might be something that you’d like to do, speak to your doctor or midwife first to get safe and up-to-date guidance!
…And after your baby's birth
Well, it’s easy to understand why good levels of prolactin are vital after childbirth: it helps you to produce more milk, so that you can breastfeed your little one. There is no sure-fire way to help raise your levels of prolactin, even though some mums swear by so-called “lactation foods”.
These include, for example, oats, yeast, seeds, and leafy greens. Googling “lactation cookies” will, no doubt, lead you to discover some interesting recipes for delicious, healthy, and pro-lactation biscuits that you may want to bake an enjoy in the first few weeks’ post-partum. The usual guidance is ‘avoid coffee’ so replace your regular morning brew with Organic Nursing Tea or another vitamin and nutrient rich beverage.
In addition to ensuring that your body nurtures your baby by lactating, normal levels of prolactin also help to regulate your moods and behaviours during the post-partum period. This can be very important for baby bonding. It just makes sense that those first days and weeks go by in a haze – there’s so much going on in your body it’s amazing you are allowed to take care of a small human. Give yourself some lax, take time to recover, and listen to your body. It’s the best source of information you can have.
Synthetic hormones rarely have no side effects, but what about natural ones?
As we have seen, oxytocin’s synthetic counterpart Pitocin can generate some potentially harmful side effects. But what about the “natural” versions of the pro-pregnancy hormones that we discussed? Could they cause anything unpleasant, or downright dangerous, to either you or your little one?
Let’s put your mind at ease straight away: neither oxytocin nor prolactin are known to cause any harm when present in normal levels. If you choose to breastfeed your baby, your prolactin levels may remain high until you have stopped nursing.
This can affect your menstrual cycle, resulting in your period being delayed until after you have weaned your baby. You may have heard that you can’t get pregnant while you are nursing? Don’t be so sure, there are plenty of occurrences where Irish twins have been born despite mum breastfeeding. Point being, if you don’t want to get pregnant, consider your choices with your midwife! Keep in mind, that just like everything about pregnancy, this is extremely individual: what you experience might be very different from what your mum, sister, or friend did after they had their babies.
Get to know and love your pro-pregnancy hormones
If you are pregnant, or your spouse is, or a friend of yours is expecting, it might be a good idea to delve a bit deeper into what actually happens in the body during that time. There are many building blocks involved that you’ve heard about, and many will be new to you. But they all have unique responsibilities in making sure mum and baby are developing together.
Another reason beyond general curiosity to understand the hormonal side of pregnancy, is being informed. You can make safer and more informed decisions regarding wellbeing and healthcare for both you and your baby. This includes choices around your birth plan and how you want to start breastfeeding your newborn.
It is a wild ride, and oftentimes the more you know the more you realise there is so much you don’t know! Just remember, you do have this. (And make that birth plan. One A4 page with visual cues, so that it’s easy to take on a glance. Your medical team will thank you.) Hormones come and go, and we women do have a lot to deal with. If it’s getting to be too much, don’t hesitate to seek help!
If you have any questions rising from this blog, or something else is on your heart, don’t hesitate to Ask our Experts!