New mums are usually familiar with the name “oxytocin”: it is a hormone widely known for the important role it plays in childbirth and breastfeeding. It’s responsible for the contractions of the uterus during labour, and also for milk production and the milk let-down reflex during breastfeeding.
But there’s more to this hormone than birth and lactation: oxytocin is also known as the love hormone, and it’s an important chemical messenger that controls human behaviour and social interaction. Our oxytocin levels rise when we make physical contact with other people, and they trigger the bond between a mother and her baby (you can read more about oxytocin here).
Oxytocin is crucially important postpartum to help establish the bond between mother and baby – so this is a time when women need loads of it.
When your oxytocin levels are high you feel like you’re in love. You feel more relaxed and contemplative, and you want to spend more and more time with the baby.
Another great thing about this hormone is that it makes you enjoy a quiet and peaceful life and tolerate monotony more. Rather than feeling bored you have an increased tolerance of repetitive activities that make up the daily tasks of caring for a newborn.
High oxytocin will act like a natural pain relief, which comes in handy not just during labour but also in the postpartum recovery period (think birth injuries, sore back, cracked nipples). It helps wounds heal quicker and the body recover faster physically.
Oxytocin is wonderful – but that doesn’t mean it’s always flowing freely and endlessly. Stress, for example, will inhibit oxytocin production. Generally speaking, the more stressed you are, the lower your oxytocin is. Feeling stressed, tense, afraid, and anxious means your body is flooded with stress hormones, and you will have lower levels of oxytocin.
The problem is, stressed, tense, and anxious is exactly how most new mums feel – which means it’s very important to boost those oxytocin levels in order to counteract all the stress. Julia Jones, founder of Newborn Mothers lists a few things you can do to get that much-needed boost:
Try to sleep 4-5 hours in one stretch
Sleep deprivation is pretty much unavoidable when you have a baby. Most of them don’t sleep through the night – and that’s absolutely normal. One thing you can do is try to get a four-five hour stretch of sleep every day: this is the amount of time necessary for your body to start producing oxytocin. Adjust to your baby’s sleeping patterns and see what works best for you as a family: this might mean going to bed at 8pm so you can sleep until midnight; or sleeping on the sofa for the first half of the night while your partner looks after the baby, and then swapping.
It’s easy to get so caught up with looking after the baby that you forget to eat; this is very common for all new mums. You may not even realise that you’re hungry – but your body does and it will react as though it’s a famine. This is an ancient biological stress response that you can’t control. Make sure there’s plenty of quick food in the fridge, and it’s even better if someone else can do the cooking for you.
Just like being hungry, being cold is stressful for your body. There’s a reason why in so many traditional cultures it is really important to keep the new mum wrapped up warm all the time. Keep the house at a nice warm temperature and wear long sleeves and socks. If you give birth during the hot summer months it’s still important to keep warm, so try to limit the air conditioning as much as possible.
Don’t have too many visitors
Feeling lonely and isolated is definitely not good for oxytocin production; but having too many visitors can also be a source of stress. You don’t want to be making small talk or entertain guests. The kind of visitors you need are the ones who you can be honest with, who clean the house or bring food, and around whom you feel comfortable breastfeeding.
Minimise rational thinking
According to Julia rational thinking is a major factor in lower oxytocin levels. Rational thinking includes all things numbers and maths: measuring and weighing the baby all the time, expressing certain quantities of milk at certain times, watching the clock for feeding and nap times, numbers, charts, and measurements. There are places for example where they recommend weighing the baby before and after breastfeeding (I know it sounds mad, but it’s true) not realising that this very act itself will inhibit the mum’s ability to breastfeed. The reason behind this is that rational thinking uses another part of the brain and it will push you out of that beautiful oxytocin flow. Sometimes however it’s unavoidable to use numbers and charts – if this is the case outsource the job to your partner.
No strict rules and schedules
Again, this is about watching the clock instead of watching for clues whether the baby is tired or hungry, or trying to follow some parenting guru’s rules even if it doesn’t feel right. Treat experts’ advice with caution: if implementing it stresses you or doesn’t feel right, don’t do it. New mums shouldn’t be told “this is the way you have to do things”. Yes, you need help and support but the rules shouldn’t be strict and rigid: you should be allowed to find your own parenting style and figure out what works for you. Anything restrictive is a bad idea – and that includes diets, too. You need a healthy and nutritious diet, but it’s also important that the food feels good and tastes good.
Do what makes you happy
To put it simply: anything that feels good will boost your oxytocin levels. Tasty food, laughter, cuddles with your partner, snuggling up with the family pet: do whatever it takes to stay happy. Cute babies and cat videos on Facebook? Watch them – they’re a major oxytocin booster. Everything cute and sweet that makes you go “aww” is great. If you feel good and you’re happy your oxytocin levels will rise, it’s inevitable – and you will naturally become the best mum you can be.