Melatonin’s role in labor progress

July 18, 2010 at 9:41 pm

In February of last year, I heard about a study that reaffirms what our mammal cousins have known instinctively for thousands of years… birth should happen in a dark, comfortable place. It also helps explain why most women go into labor in the middle of the night. And why so many labors slow down or stall in a hospital setting.

The study’s abstract says this in conclusion: “[Melatonin] synergizes with [oxytocin] to promote [uterine smooth muscle] contractions and to facilitate gap junction activity [in a controlled testing environment]. Such a synergy in [a living human] would promote coordinated and forceful contractions of the late term pregnant uterus necessary for [childbirth]” (Sharkey, Puttaramu, Word and Olcese, “Melatonin Synergizes with Oxytocin to Enhance Contractility of Human Myometrial Smooth Muscle Cells“).

I was absolutely stoked and fascinated when I read this. It makes complete sense! Melatonin is the hormone responsible for inducing sleep. Our bodies increase production of melatonin in darkness, and most humans’ melatonin levels peak in the wee hours of the morning. Daylight and artificial light reduce melatonin production.

In my excited melatonin frenzy, I did some quick internet browsing and discovered that meditation increases melatonin production. Some of the most effective coping strategies for labor are akin to meditation–progressive relaxation, hypnobirthing, visualization, breathing techniques–so it makes sense why they’re so helpful.

So… let’s just be logical here… if melatonin and oxytocin synergize to produce labor contractions, wouldn’t it make sense to do everything possible to keep melatonin levels high during childbirth?

And, let’s just be logical again… how well do you think a woman can “meditate” or use coping techniques when she’s…

1) In a sterile, cold, artificially bright, unfamiliar setting?

2) Having an IV inserted, being given forms to sign, or being asked irritating questions about her social security number mid-contraction?

3) Being relentlessly interrupted by hospital staff coming in and out, sticking their fingers inside of her?

Unfortunately, just about everything about a hospital makes it one of the worst possible places to facilitate childbirth progress. If you really want to facilitate the birth process, take a lesson from your pet cat. Turn off the lights! Get to a comfortable place. Do whatever you can to relax and get into a sleep-like meditative state. Let your body do what it already knows how to do. If/When it’s time to leave your dark/comfortable nest, take along some blue-light blocking sunglasses and someone who can protect your birthing space from unnecessary distractions and interruptions.  Keep those melatonin levels high!

I love it when science discovers that nature was right all along.