Inspired by my friend’s recent birth journey, I’ve been writing about how we can make birth easier by planning and preparing to support the mother’s natural birthing hormones. Could postpartum be easier, too, if we let Nature lead?
As a birth educator, I’d always been impressed by Nature’s perfect economy of sexual reproduction: that the same hormones, oxytocin and endorphins, that helped get you pregnant would also help you birth your baby, bond with her, and feed her.
But in my research for Becoming a Mother (the book – coming in 2020) I learned about prolactin. I had known it as the hormone of lacto-genesis, or milk production, but it is so much more.
Embedded in these three hormones is a design for postpartum ease that – like birth ease – deserves to be more widely known.
Oxytocin is the hormone of love and bonding. It is released with sexual arousal, peaks with orgasm and facilitates bonding. Oxytocin also initiates and drives labor, its release peaking with the baby’s birth, and continuing as you hold baby skin-to-skin. It is also released with the nipple stimulation of baby’s rooting and suckling and causes the milk to let down. If you’ve ever held a loved one close, experienced sexual arousal and release, or nursed a baby, you know how oxytocin feels: delicious, tingly, pleasurably spaced out.
Endorphins, the feel-good hormones, are part of all these reproductive experiences, too. They are well known for being released during physical exertion and to soothe pain. But they are always released with oxytocin, which means they help makes sex feel good and help labor feel better and nursing and cuddling so pleasurable. To know how endorphins feel, it may help to know that the name is a mash-up of the words “endogenous,” meaning “originating from within the body,” and “morphine,” the opiate. Thus endorphins are your body’s own morphine, producing both analgesia and euphoria.
Prolactin was the revelation to me. In her wonderful book Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering, Dr. Sarah J. Buckley says there are “more than three hundred known bodily effects of prolactin,” collectively called the “maternal subroutine.” Among other effects, prolactin stimulates the mother’s appetite and grooming of theinfant, dampens the stress response, stimulates the release of oxytocin and endorphins and increases REM sleep. It is a hormone of surrender, helping new mothers to put baby’s needs first for a while (pp. 108-9).
Surrender. Baby grooming. Sleepiness. A suppressed stress response. The bliss of oxytocin and endorphins. Can you visualize this mother? Buckley tells us that, during lactation, “prolactin levels are directly related to suckling intensity, duration and frequency” (108). In other words, the more baby nurses, the more prolactin is released, in a virtuous cycle of what she calls “positive addiction.”
I am struck by this fact: to the powerful – and powerfully pleasurable – hormones of reproduction, oxytocin and endorphins, Nature adds a third, prolactin, after the baby is born.
Oxytocin + Endorphins + Prolactin = Thriving
Why would Nature up the hormonal support after birth?
Why does Nature do anything? So that your genes will succeed. Put another way: Nature wants your baby to thrive. For baby to thrive, mother needs to thrive, too. Nature will support your thriving if you follow her cues.
This understanding nudged me to re-evaluate my own postpartum experiences: my first child did not breastfeed, my second did.
While I loved my first baby fiercely, nothing was easy. I felt clueless and anxious so much of the time. She wasn’t like the babies in the parenting books, nor was I the “natural” mother I’d imagined I’d be. I held us both to a very high standard, as if I should be able to carry on my life as before, only with her as some kind of accessory, like a TV baby. I feared there was something wrong with both of us.
Without prolactin to guide me, I had to rely on cultural values of what a good baby and mom were.
It made me a little crazy.
My second child, in contrast, nursed readily. Eager to encourage him, I followed advice and allowed him to be at the breast as much and as often as he wanted, which was most of the time. For example, when he was four days old he nursed five hours straight through the night. By six weeks old he was nursing about eight hours a day – a full time job.
The effect of his being at the breast so much of the time was that I sat around a lot. I watched him, watched my daughter play on the floor, read. At some point I noticed how I happy I was – and how little I cared about anything other than keeping my sweet little ones and myself fed and clean. I didn’t mind about the shower I couldn’t manage to take, the errands I couldn’t manage to run, the dishes I couldn’t manage to wash. I was just deeply happy.
With prolactin to guide me, I didn’t care at all about our cultural values of what a good baby and mom were. It made me crazy in the best way: surrendered, relaxed, feeding, grooming, eating, baby-addicted and blissed-out.
It made postpartum easy.
Let It Be Easy
Nature prompts the behavior it wants to encourage: in postpartum that means continual contact and unrestricted breastfeeding. When you follow its lead Nature rewards with ease and pleasure. What a different picture of postpartum than the culturally-dominant one of struggle and pain.
The good news is we can change our culture. Let’s let birth and postpartum be easier than our culture expects by following Nature’s prompts and enjoying the rewards.
What if Nature were always guiding us toward thriving through subtle prompts of the body and rewards of ease and pleasure? How would that change your mothering? Your relationship with your children? Your marriage? Please share in the comments!