Whats love got to do with it? A doula reflects on birth


Thinking about birth doesn’t conjure up feelings of love for the majority of us.  I know that long ago (well, 11 years ago) when I was pregnant for the first time, I did not associate giving birth with feelings of love.  I mean, I envisioned my partner and I sharing a kiss after our baby arrived, but my brain was conditioned to see birth as this harried screamfest with me yelling “you did this to me!”  When it came time to hunker down at the hospital in Plymouth, MA to give birth to our child, “love” was not exactly what I was thinking about, but our nurses and my husband showed me differently.  But first, a short backstory...

I did nothing to sufficiently educate myself on birth.  At the time, I was working full time as an operating room nurse in Cambridge, MA (it was an hour and half commute each way, 5 days a week) and felt that I had zero time to study birth.  I was a bit overconfident to be honest.  I felt that my being a nurse who absolutely loved and thrived in her maternity rotation, I had seen all I needed and felt quite comfortable having our baby in a local community hospital on the south shore.  I knew that I’d labor at home and would show up to the hospital when my contractions were about 5 minutes apart , and the nurses would do their thing, and the doctor would her thing, and boom, it would be over and I’d be a mom.  Where’s the love in that?  Clearly, I didn’t know the key piece to giving birth.  

Some of you may be at a point in reading this where you think its a good time to exit out of this piece because associating birth and love is only for the natural hippie birthers, which you do not identify with.  Please let me reassure you, that’s not my angle.  When I write, its for everyone. This is the information that I now understand and realize that it would’ve helped me connect better with my body and my experience.

See, there’s this hormone that we talk about endlessly in the birth world called oxytocin. In case you haven’t heard of it, it’s the hormone that causes strong, regular contractions  during labor. But it also has a whole bunch of other jobs, too: for one, it’s the hormone at play when you are feeling love and affection. Whenever you get the warm fuzzies for your partner, or your baby, or even a really cute puppy, that’s oxytocin doing its work. (It has other jobs, too, but we’ll get to those later.)

Oxytocin is partially responsible for bonding, orgasms, childbirth, and breastfeeding. It even helps the uterus to clamp down after the placenta has been birthed!  Clearly, its a big deal, yet many of us go through life, never mind childbirth and parenthood not even knowing its name.  Once people are clued into this fabulous and multitasking hormone, they want to know how to access it during labor.  The secret is to say its name three times in the mirror (kidding, kidding!) As easy as it should be to just call upon “more oxytocin” during childbirth, we have generations of scary birth stories to unravel, stories that are part of our cellular makeup, stories that make us feel unsafe during birth.  What have we done?  Well, instead of encouraging and listening to birth givers, we have told them all the horrific things that can go wrong with birth, and we have actually caused their bodies to go into a fight, flight, or freeze mode.  We (as a culture) have plugged up the natural flow of oxytocin and we are putting people into a high adrenaline state. Adrenaline halts the rush of oxytocin.  Labor slows or even stalls, and in most hospital settings, interventions are brought up by care providers to “get labor going again”.  Usually, oxytocin’s synthetic form, Pitocin, is introduced.

So, what can we do to encourage our own  natural use of oxytocin?  We can start by helping pregnant people feel safe, educated, heard, and lifted by positive birth stories.  For those of you who did experience trauma during birth, we want you to know that there is space in our hearts for you and your story.  We just need to be mindful how we share.  Giving birth requires that feeling of safety.  In order for our bodies to relax and release necessary hormones, we need to feel protected.  Where do you feel most at ease?  Where do you feel comfort?  I bet most of you would say home.  You are sheltered, you know your way around, you are familiar with the smells and furnishings, you can eat and drink all you want, and your bed is your haven.  That’s why we doulas and most care providers say to “stay home as long as possible” when you are in early labor.  We want you and your body to be able to do its thing on its own without unnecessary interference.  This is why some people choose a homebirth with skilled and experienced midwives and doulas.  Home is usually where the oxytocin is at!

What else can we do?  What can we do once we are  at the hospital or birth center?  We tend to feel that once we are outside the home, we are frightened, not in control of things, and disoriented.  We at Rising Tide Women always suggest to our doula and birth prep clients to visit the place of birth long before labor.  Bring all of your questions to the tour and do not hold back asking.  The other people on the tour will be grateful for your inquisitiveness!  Another thing you can do before labor is to make sure that your care provider is supportive of your choices and the vision you have for your birth.  This can be accomplished by writing down your wishes and giving copies to your OB or midwife.  Go over these wishes together during your prenatal visits.  Make sure your doula is in the loop as well, they are the ones who work tirelessly to help make these things happen!

Once labor has begun, whether you are planning to birth at home or hospital, have your support people make your surroundings as comforting as possible.  Draw the curtains, keep privacy a priority, keep light snacks and beverages fresh and handy, dim the lights, turn on battery operated candles, and keep all floors clear of clutter, because walking and walking and walking is another way to get a baby born!  These ideas all seem like a romantic setting, right?  Well, yes!  Romance is oxytocin, and oxytocin is birth, therefore birth is romantic!

In fact, smooching and cuddling with your partner (and even getting intimate if you feel like it) can really help get that oxytocin flowing and keep labor rolling along. One of the sayings you may hear in the birth world is “what got the baby in, gets the baby out!” Some laboring parents even use nipple stimulation to get labor started or keep it moving; please run that by your care provider before you dive in, though. 

One of the things we encourage our birth clients to do is think about the answers to these questions and talk them over with their partners. How can you incorporate these answers into your birth planning?

  • What kinds of things make you feel safe and loved?

  • When you are feeling stressed or uncomfortable, how does touch and physical affection work for you?

  • What makes you feel better after a long, stressful day? 

Did you use oxytocin in your birth experience? What helped you feel good? Share in the comments!