You may have heard about a hormone called oxytocin. It’s released during labour and birth to contract the uterus, when a mother feeds her baby (letting milk down), and during orgasm. Sometimes referred to as the love hormone, oxytocin elicits feelings of trust that help in establishing close emotional relationships. But did you know that oxytocin is released during any close skin contact, including babywearing?
Kangaroo care is a well-known way to help premature babies survive and thrive, and involves lots of skin contact between parent and baby. It seems that oxytocin is part of the reason why kangaroo care is so successful. Oxytocin causes the parent’s body temperature in the chest area to rise by as much as two degrees, keeping the baby warm. The baby also releases oxytocin thanks to the skin contact, helping them regulate their own temperature and breathing.
Another effect of this hormone is regulating metabolism – how quickly the body burns up the energy from food. Mothers who release oxytocin regularly, have a more efficient metabolism – their body is able to get more energy out of the food they eat. This also applies to babies, helping small babies gain the weight they need. It can be frustrating for a new mother to not have her pre-baby body back so quickly, but the more efficient metabolism counteracts the additional energy burned to breastfeed and carry another little human being. And the pre-baby body will return in a fitter, more goddess-like shape with all that babywearing!
Speaking of the mother’s body after baby, the additional oxytocin from babywearing may help in healing from an episiotomy, tear, or caesarean. Studies on rats show that the presence of oxytocin can help in healing wounds (you don’t want to know the details of how they did that research…).
Oxytocin also promotes feelings of calm and trust. Research on animals shows that without oxytocin, there is difficulty adjusting to an unfamiliar situation. And I can’t think of a more unfamiliar situation than the sudden transition to being a parent! There is also a theory that the synthetic oxytocin routinely administered to women in third stage of labour contributes to not protesting when hospital staff don’t follow their birth plan. The theory is that the synthetic oxytocin enhances the feeling of trust, and the women consent to things that they would not normally.
The link between oxytocin and breastfeeding is well documented, in part because it is the easiest way for researchers to see the effects of this hormone outside of animal studies. Oxytocin controls the let-down of milk, and is triggered by hearing a baby’s cry or holding them close. The release of oxytocin prompts the release of prolactin, the hormone that controls milk production, setting up a positive loop for the breastfeeding woman. Babywearing can be useful for women who want to increase their milk supply, as it provides extra oxytocin hits and makes it easier to feed frequently during the day’s activities. A mother who holds her baby close also has more opportunity to learn her baby’s signs for hunger and tiredness, and can respond faster.
So with all this talk of oxytocin’s super powers to make love, not war, what is oxytocin’s nemesis? Adrenaline. Hence it’s best to avoid fighting off zombie hordes, or abseiling off the office roof, while babywearing. You don’t want to undo all those good things with a shot of adrenaline.
These hormonal effects happen in all mammals, both male and female. So for a new mum or dad, babywearing can help get that bonding process going, keep both parent and baby warm and help baby to grow, and adjust to the changes of parenthood. All thanks to oxytocin, the natural high of babywearing.