It is commonly referred to as the “love hormone” or “cuddle hormone” because it is released when snuggling with a loved one or a pet, during sex and in the throes of a new relationship. But such names simplify the effect of a very important hormone: oxytocin.
In our childbirth education classes, we discuss oxytocin and the role it plays during labor as well as ways to increase oxytocin to help facilitate contractions. Oxytocin also helps shrink the uterus after delivery (in hospitals it is usually standard procedure to hang a bag of synthetic oxytocin immediately after delivery in part to reduce the chance of haemorrhaging). Oxytocin is also released during breastfeeding, helping to stimulate letdown of milk. It plays a role in bonding; interacting with your baby causes both yours and your baby’s oxytocin levels to increase. In general, oxytocin triggers warm, happy feelings and nurturing behaviors. Some studies suggest that higher levels of oxytocin in the first trimester can lead to an increase in bonding behaviors after birth. Oxytocin can serve like “rose-colored glasses,” helping you see your loved ones’ behaviors in a more positive light and increasing feelings of love and attachment.
Oxytocin is also used as a drug; you might recognize the brand name Pitocin! Artificial oxytocin is used to induce labor, augment labor, or–as already mentioned–help shrink the uterus post-delivery. Oxytocin sprays have also been tested for their ability to smooth social interactions or ease anxiety, but these applications need further study.
So if oxytocin is so central to labor, breastfeeding, and bonding with your baby, not to mention romantic relationships, what can you do to maximize your oxytocin levels? Luckily, a lot of ways of raising oxytocin can double as self-care. Touch is great; cuddle with your baby skin to skin or get a massage from your partner or a hug from a friend. Pet a beloved animal. Tell someone you love them. Share a meal with someone. Give a gift. Talk to friends. Try out meditation or yoga. Find what activity makes you feel happy and relaxed and stick with that!