What you need to know about oxytocin, labour and childbirth

What you need to know about oxytocin, labour and childbirth

Labour and childbirth is one of the biggest moments in our pregnancy journey. While no two births are the same, there’s so much value in learning what to expect to help you prepare for the experience ahead of time.

Someone who knows this experience of labour and birth very well is today’s guest, Erin Phibbs (midwife, mama of four and founder of childbirth education platform, The Birth Trust).

We sat down with Erin to chat about the three stages of labour, the powerful role of oxytocin in labour, what to keep in mind when inducing labour and so much more. 

Understanding the three stages of labour 

Labour itself is broken down into three key stages, each playing an important role in bringing our baby into the world. 

The first stage of labour 

Our labour begins with phase one, which is all about the softening and opening of our cervix. By the time our cervix has opened to 10 centimetres, we’re ready to enter stage two of labour. 

During the first stage of labour, some of the common symptoms you might experience include: 

  • Feelings of irritability
  • Lower back pain 
  • Period-like pains 
  • Sporadic, mild cramping
  • Passing your mucus plug 
  • A sudden gush or leak of fluid (your waters breaking)

Erin points out that our first stage of labour is broken down further into two parts: early phase labour and active phase labour. 

“The early phase of labour is all about the thinning out and softening of the cervix and waiting for full effacement to occur. Once that's happened, we can start to dilate,” explains Erin.

From four centimetres dilation, that’s when we’re generally considered to be in active labour. Even if we don’t have a vaginal assessment, there are other signs that can indicate this shift, including a more consistent contraction pattern and outward behavioral changes such as being unable to maintain eye contact during contractions.

The second stage of labour 

Once our cervix has reached full dilation, we enter the second stage of labour. This stage usually includes:

  • Longer, stronger contractions with one or two minutes break in between
  • A desire or urge to push
  • Nausea or vomiting 
  • A stretching or burning feeling in your vagina and pressure in your bottom

This stage of labour is all about pushing and is the time when we will birth our baby. 

While everyone’s birth journey will be different, Erin says on average most people experience five to eight hours of active labour. 

“I think a lot of people  - actually, most people -  don't know how long the second stage of labour can take. The pushing phase of labour alone can take 1 -2 hours, which is much longer than most people expect,” reveals Erin. 

The third stage of labour 

After our baby has entered the world, the final stage of labour  involves delivering our placenta. This stage usually takes anywhere from 20 minutes to an hour, and some women may receive an injection to help with this final delivery. 

The role of oxytocin in labour 

If there’s one thing Erin wants you to remember about labour, it’s this: oxytocin is the hormone that drives labour. Throughout all the phases of labour, we want to keep oxytocin levels high and support the production of this helpful hormone. 

But as we transition from home to hospital or our birthing suite, our oxytocin production can slow down as we become stressed or nervous (and adrenaline rushes through our system). 

When labouring at home in the early phase, our oxytocin levels are high as we’re in our own safe, comfortable environment. 

To replicate this environment as we transition to our place of birth, Erin recommends women create a ‘coping in the car’ kit, which might include:

  • A big hoodie and sunglasses to help us feel unobserved as we drive and arrive at the hospital 
  • Using headphones to play calming music or meditation tracks 
  • The use of aromatherapy oils to bring about calming feelings

Erin recommends women recreate this kind of space in our birthing suite, using LED candles, diffusers and calming music to help us feel comfortable during the process.

What to consider when it comes to the induction of labour

Induction can be a contentious topic when it comes to labour and birth. 

There are a number of reasons why your healthcare provider or doctor might recommend inducing labour, these include:

  • Gestational diabetes 
  • If there’s concerns about the growth of the baby at the end of your pregnancy 
  • If you’re experiencing maternal hypertension (high blood pressure)

Erin shares that, “You need to carefully weigh-up the risks associated with induction,  and the potential risks of continuing the pregnancy and waiting for the onset of spontaneous labour. The decision to induce labour should always be one based on risk versus benefit, because induction is a medical intervention that will affect the way you experience the birthing process.”

“I say to couples it's about feeling confident in your decision. Informing yourself and feeling empowered in your decision making is so important,” tells Erin. 

Erin’s words of support for mamas preparing for labour

Erin shares that education is one of the best ways parents can prepare for birth ahead of time. 

“Childbirth education is incredibly beneficial for partners, because they come into the birth space feeling empowered, and they approach labour with confidence to advocate for their partner. They don't feel like a passenger in the event,” shares Erin.

“I often remind mamas that labour is finite. There is a beginning, a middle and an end. It’s not infinite,” tells Erin.