Giving Birth: The Pleasure Principle

Researchers have found another parallel in sexual arousal during intercourse, birth and breastfeeding. A seldom-studied hormone, oxytocin - -which we label the caregiving hormone -- flows in a woman's body during all three stages. In intercourse, this hormone's release is triggered by orgasm; in labor, by the onset of contractions; and in breastfeeding, by each letdown of milk.

Unlike many other hormones, oxytocin is generated in sporadic bursts rather than in a steady stream. With orgasm or milk letdown, an oxytocin burst can produce a euphoric sensation. Its release, however, is easily inhibited. Just as orgasm in lovemaking can be stopped by sudden noises, many a labor's progress has been halted by an inhibiting hospital environment. Nursing mothers sometimes report their milk letdown slowing or stopping when they're criticized, fatigued, or unhappy.

During sex, women do not want their concentration disturbed, and in undrugged and uninhibited labor, their reaction is the same. Social inhibitions decrease as orgasm nears, and unmedicated labor progresses. The uterus rhythmically contracts, and a tense, almost tortured, look appears on the face. In both intercourse and labor, there's deep breathing, sensations of pressure and stretching, sighs, groans, and sometimes screams.

"I bellowed gloriously as I pushed her out. It felt great to yell, but it freaked out the nurses and doctors. Lamaze teachers aren't supposed to 'lose control.' I didn't. It just felt right to yell, sort of a war cry."
-- Mother from Colorado

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