- When fetal development is complete, the peptide-derived hormone oxytocin (tocia- = “childbirth”) stimulates uterine contractions and dilation of the cervix. Throughout most of pregnancy, oxytocin hormone receptors are not expressed at high levels in the uterus. Toward the end of pregnancy, the synthesis of oxytocin receptors in the uterus increases, and the smooth muscle cells of the uterus become more sensitive to its effects. Oxytocin is continually released throughout childbirth through a positive feedback mechanism. As noted earlier, oxytocin prompts uterine contractions that push the fetal head toward the cervix. In response, cervical stretching stimulates additional oxytocin to be synthesized by the hypothalamus and released from the pituitary. This increases the intensity and effectiveness of uterine contractions and prompts additional dilation of the cervix. The feedback loop continues until birth.
Although the mother’s high blood levels of oxytocin begin to decrease immediately following birth, oxytocin continues to play a role in maternal and newborn health. First, oxytocin is necessary for the milk ejection reflex (commonly referred to as “let-down”) in breastfeeding women. As the newborn begins suckling, sensory receptors in the nipples transmit signals to the hypothalamus. In response, oxytocin is secreted and released into the bloodstream. Within seconds, cells in the mother’s milk ducts contract, ejecting milk into the infant’s mouth. Secondly, in both males and females, oxytocin is thought to contribute to parent–newborn bonding, known as attachment. Oxytocin is also thought to be involved in feelings of love and closeness, as well as in the sexual response.