Understanding Oxytocin: The Love Hormone and its Role in Breastfeeding
Oxytocin is a hormone often referred to as the “love hormone” because of its role in promoting feelings of trust and attachment. Oxytocin is produced in the hypothalamus, a region of the brain, and is released into the bloodstream by the pituitary gland in response to nipple stimulation and sucking. This hormone plays an essential role in childbirth and breastfeeding.
Joelleen Winduss Paye, is a holistic International Board Certified Lactation Consultant (IBCLC), endorsed midwife, naturopath, and educator, and is the founder of JWP - a holistic lactation practice. Joelleen has supported breastfeeding families for over 13 years and offers a uniquely holistic perspective.
What is Oxytocin and why is it important?
When a baby starts to breastfeed, the stimulation of the mother's nipple sends signals to the hypothalamus, which then triggers the release of oxytocin from the pituitary gland. Oxytocin causes the milk ducts in the breast to contract, which moves milk down towards the nipple, making it easier for the baby to feed.
In addition to its role in milk letdown, oxytocin also has several other important effects on breastfeeding. It helps to promote maternal-infant bonding and can increase feelings of relaxation and well-being in the mother. This can be particularly helpful during the early days of breastfeeding when both mother and baby are learning how to breastfeed.
Research has also shown that oxytocin can have a positive impact on milk production. Studies have found that mothers who have higher levels of oxytocin during breastfeeding tend to produce more milk overall.
According to Joelleen, “The majority of oxytocin in the body is produced in the hypothalamus and stored in the posterior pituitary gland. Oxytocin can also be synthesised in other body parts, such as the ovaries, testes, and placenta. It is then released into the bloodstream and travels throughout the body to exert its effects on various organs and tissues.”
Joelleen recommends several ways to increase oxytocin levels in the body, which can enhance feelings of calm, relaxation, and connectedness.
Breastfeeding on demand is one of the most effective ways to stimulate oxytocin release in lactating mothers. This is because suckling stimulates the nerves in the nipple and areola, which send signals to the hypothalamus in the brain to release oxytocin. Keeping yourself and your baby warm during breastfeeding can also promote oxytocin release, as warmth can enhance feelings of relaxation and safety.
Engaging in gentle light touch or massage can also stimulate oxytocin release. This can include gentle stroking or holding your baby, self-massage, or receiving a massage from a partner or professional.
In addition to these techniques, Joelleen suggests incorporating certain foods and supplements into your diet to support oxytocin release. Hot drinks like tea or broth can promote warmth and self-care, and can be enjoyed while breastfeeding or expressing breastmilk. Comfort foods that make you feel nostalgic and nourished, such as warm soups or stews, can also support oxytocin release. The use of warming spices like ginger, cinnamon, and cloves can also support oxytocin release, as they promote feelings of warmth and comfort in the body.
Probiotics can be particularly helpful for supporting the nervous and endocrine systems, as they promote gut health. Magnesium is another important supplement that can support the stress response, reducing levels of cortisol and adrenaline in the body, which can work against oxytocin release.
It's also important to be mindful of factors that can decrease oxytocin levels, such as stress and anxiety, lack of physical contact, certain medications, cold temperatures, and too many stimulants like caffeine and sugar. By focusing on techniques and strategies that enhance oxytocin release, you can support your own wellbeing and strengthen your bond with your baby.
How Can Breast Massage Help?
Breast massage is an excellent way to support oxytocin release and improve milk production during breastfeeding. Evidence-based information on breast massage can be hard to find, which can make learning how to use breast massage in a healthy way feel more challenging.
Lactamo provides a gentle and effective way to massage your breasts while breastfeeding or pumping, and is specifically designed for the elasticity of breast tissue, allowing the correct pressure to be used. Lactamo uses a unique combination of temperature, movement, and compression to facilitate gentle breast massage, and this combination can have a number of benefits including helping increase oxytocin levels and promoting the let-down reflex. Using Lactamo in an outward direction from the nipple can be very supportive to breast health as it not only stimulates oxytocin, but also lymphatic drainage. Joelleen supports the use of warmth (never too hot), together with gentle movement and compression to facilitate breast massage.
Understanding the power of oxytocin, and using gentle touch, skin to skin contact and nutrition to stimulate its relaxing effects can greatly benefit your breastfeeding and/or expressing journey.
Joelleen supports clients face-to-face in Melbourne and consults virtually with clients worldwide. She teaches a live breastfeeding workshop every second month, supporting parents to learn about breastfeeding before their baby arrives. Joelleen also has a Breastfeeding eGuide, and her services are available here. Follow Joelleen @jwp.ibclc for holistic breastfeeding and baby content.