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What Is the Function of Oxytocin?

Oxytocin strengthens the bond between newborns and their parents.
Oxytocin encourages mothers to engage in nurturing behavior.
Oxytocin is released during sexual arousal and orgasm.
Oxytocin prepares a pregnant woman for childbirth.
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  • Written By: M.R. Anglin
  • Edited By: S. Pike
  • Last Modified Date: 26 September 2014
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Oxytocin is a mammalian hormone that has many functions, the most notable having to do with pregnant or lactating mammals. In this capacity, some of the hormone’s main functions are preparing a female’s body for childbirth, stimulating milk “let-down” so that a baby can properly feed, and facilitating the bond between a mother and a newborn infant. The hormone is also thought to play a role in sexual arousal and orgasms in females who are not pregnant or lactating, as well as in males. In nonsexual human relationships, the hormone is credited with increasing trust, generosity, and cooperation. It can also stimulate a nurturing aspect within males and females who are not mothers.

One of the main roles of oxytocin is to prepare a pregnant woman for childbirth. During the last months of pregnancy, the woman’s uterus develops more and more receptors for this hormone. These receptors allow the smooth muscle of the uterus to react to the hormone when it is released. When the fetus is ready to be born, it releases oxytocin, which starts a process that causes the mother’s pituitary gland to release more of the hormone. Once the hormone is released, it causes the uterus to contract, which in turn helps push the baby out.

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Once the baby is born, the hormone helps to encourage the mother-child bonding. In many mammals, oxytocin released during the birthing process affects not only the uterus, but also the brain. The hormone stimulates the nurturing and maternal instincts in a mother to her child, helping to ensure that she will take care of her baby instead of letting it die from neglect. In those who are not mothers, this hormone can also help establish a bond among social groups. It may also play a role in the display of aggression against those that are viewed as outsiders of a group.

This hormone also plays a role in milk expression, a process also known as milk let-down. In a lactating woman’s breast are milk-producing glands surrounded by myeopithelial cells. The milk-producing glands make milk, but the milk does not leave the glands until an infant suckles. This stimulates the mother’s hypothalamus to produce oxytocin, which causes the myeopithelial cells to contract and force the milk down. This also causes the uterus to contract until it shrinks back to a near-normal size.

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Saraq90
Post 8

@bluespirit - As far as I know, there have been some connections made in some studies. For example, in one study women were studied to look for different risk factors for postpartum depression and fourteen of the women went on to have postpartum also all had low levels of oxytocin.

However, they had not in that study made any conclusions as to causality between oxytocin and postpartum!

bluespirit
Post 7

If someone had asked me, "What is oxytocin?" I would never have guessed what an amazing function this substance produces.

My question is about post-partum depression; the depression that can sometimes occur after giving birth and I wonder if not enough oxytocin could have something to do with it (I have now seen two people go through it, both very middle of the road, easy-going people before crashing after giving birth)?

Misscoco
Post 6

The diverse functions that the hormone oxytocin serves in childbirth, breastfeeding and bonding with one's child is nothing short of miraculous. The hormone is usually very strong in pregnant and lactating women. But it also has an effect on sexual arousal and just a good warm fuzzy feeling that we need for human relationships.

I know that I have just a natural feeling of interest and I'm drawn toward babies and children whenever I see them. I always look at them and observe and I can't help but smile. It would be interesting to know the average level of oxytocin in men and women and at different ages.

Mykol
Post 5

It seems like the amount of oxytocin that is produced in a woman's body might be different from person to person.

The reason I say this is because one of my good friends daughter-in-law never seemed to bond with her baby. Even when he was just a few days old, she didn't seem very interested in him, and had no problems leaving him for long periods of time.

Most women bond with their babies right away and want to spend as much time as possible with them when they are infants.

It was really sad to see, and as he grew a little older, he would cry when she came to pick him up and didn't want to go to her.

I had never personally seen anything like this in a mother and wonder if her body didn't make as much of the oxytocin hormone as normal in most women.

julies
Post 4

I know some women are not able to breastfeed or have troubles with it, but I thought it was a wonderful experience.

I breastfed all of my babies, and the first time was pretty exciting. It took a few tries before it felt comfortable for both of us, but was well worth the effort.

Even if a woman does not breastfeed, there is still a special bond that develops between her and her child.

It is just amazing to think about how our bodies start producing more of this oxytocin hormone the closer you get to giving birth.

andee
Post 3

It is interesting what a big role the oxytocin hormone plays in the whole pregnancy to childbirth process.

For anyone who has breast fed their babies, you immediately understand that natural bond that happens.

Just the sound of your baby crying in a different room can cause your milk to let-down.

Hormones play such an important part in our whole lives, that it is no wonder they have such a big impact on us and our babies during this special time.

dfoster85
Post 2

@ElizaBennett - I had a not-great experience with pitocin during my very long labor. I wasn't progressing well and they wanted to speed things up as my water had broken and time was passing.

So we tried a low dose first. Geez, did it hurt! So then I got an epidural and they turned it up. Then I couldn't feel those extra-strong contractions, but the baby could. And he didn't like them. So then the internal fetal monitor. And finally the C-section. Really, though, I'm not sure that anything was done "wrong" - my baby turned out to have a very large head and I really think he was just "stuck." The pit was worth a try, but nothing was budging that baby.

The natural oxytocin from breastfeeding was a whole different story! I knew the baby was latched on right when I felt my abdomen clench up. I think they call oxytocin "the love hormone" because it makes you feel all warm and fuzzy. So strange that it does such very different things - the warm fuzzies vs. causing contractions!

ElizaBennett
Post 1

Something expectant moms should be aware of is that pitocin, the drug that is often given to induce or to speed up labor, is a synthetic form of oxytocin. It's actually a synthetic hormone.

Pitocin can save a woman's life if she hemorrhages in the moments after childbirth by causing her uterus to contract strongly. However, its overuse can cause problems. For instance, some doctors routinely give all moms a shot of pit after the baby is out in order to deliver the placenta faster. But this can cause extra-painful contractions, and it's not really necessary. If the new mom is allowed to hold her new baby and breastfeed, the breastfeeding will release oxytocin, which will have the same effect but in a gentler, more natural way.

It's one of those questions to ask your care provider well before you go into labor. If you make your wishes clear, you should be able to avoid this intervention unless there is a clear medical need for it.

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