Here's how your baby's brain gets switched on during birth

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Certain hormones help both mother and baby deal with the stressors that labour bring
Certain hormones help both mother and baby deal with the stressors that labour bring

When pondering your due date most expectant mothers think about it in terms of the effect it will have on them.

But labour has huge effects on the baby, and in a healthy unborn baby, the effects have enormous advantages.

Many mothers-to-be are led to believe that labour is unmanageable, unnecessary and unsafe for their baby.

But labour has a purpose – nature has a plan to bring your baby into this world safely, and not only that, your baby's brain and certain reflexes get "switched on" as baby moves through the birth canal.

The contractions of labour provide massive skin stimulation for the unborn baby. This helps prepare the baby's sustaining systems (baby's own life support system) to take over as the first breath is drawn.

During labour certain hormones are released to help both mother and baby deal with the stressors that labour brings. These stressors are good for a healthy baby and give your baby a fighting chance to take on the world.

Also read: Relaxin, prolactin, oxytocin, oh my! A guide to those pesky pregnancy hormones

Love those hormones

Hormones that are released in the mother filter through to the baby and work for the baby in the following way.

Oxytocin is released in massive quantities during the second and third stage of labour and indirectly works for baby, by warming up the mother's skin and making sure baby is warm and snug when he's laid on his mother's chest.

Her temperature will fluctuate according to how warm or cold her baby is. That's why giving the baby to mom immediately after birth (before routine weight and length checks) is so important.

Oxytocin also causes her breasts to be filled with colostrum, providing nourishment for the newborn as he has his first feed, stabilising his sugar levels.

Endorphins provide pain relief for the baby as he works his way down the birth canal. Nature's narcotic has no negative side effects on him, as synthetic narcotics (such as pethidine) would have. It also provides euphoria in both mom and baby at the time of birth.

The alertness your newborn has is directly related to these hormones. A more alert baby draws parents in and he or she is more responsive to parents and others.

The most important hormone 

Adrenaline, which is always released under stressful situations, whether good or bad, is the most important hormone in ensuring the survival of the baby. The stress hormones released at birth are equal to those released in an endurance athlete.

Birth is taxing, but women and babies are well equipped to deal with it!

A healthy full-term baby responds to the stress of labour with a surge of adrenaline and research suggests these high levels are a built-in defence to provide protection during birth and to help the baby adapt to life outside the womb.

Adrenaline helps to prepare the baby's respiratory system for breathing. As the baby makes his way out of his mother's body, the compression of the baby's chest during contractions squeezes fluid from the lungs into the throat.

Adrenaline allows for better re-absorption of lung fluid so the baby is better able to breathe. Adrenaline also promotes the release of a lung surfactant – a soapy-like substance that allows the alveoli in the lungs to open for the first time and work as they breathe oxygen and no longer water.

This enables the lungs to expand on the baby's first breath. Adrenaline helps a baby conserve energy and oxygen so that the baby is a good colour and will get a good Apgar score as soon as possible after birth, and there is redistribution of circulation.

Stress hormones help send more blood to the baby's brain, heart and kidneys, all of which are organs necessary for life support. The white blood cell count increases with the secretion of adrenal hormones.

This also causes an increased energy supply to the baby. This is what keeps the baby so alert.

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Other benefits to baby

The baby's nervous system is stimulated so that the newborn is aroused and alert for one to two hours after birth – and aware of the change in environment.

The nervous system is constantly myelinated (bubble wrapped) protecting the nerves and the brain during the birth process. The baby's pupils dilate as a result of adrenaline release, as does the mother's.

This phenomenon causes the beginnings of attachment between a mother and her baby the minute they lay eyes on each other. The sooner this happens, the better the start of the bonding process will be. As the baby moves through the birth canal, the muscles of the vagina "unscrew" the baby by causing it to twist and turn as it moves down.

After being curled up in one position for all the weeks of pregnancy, this helps the spine to uncurl and align before coming into the world. As the baby passes through the mother's vagina, he or she will pick up the good bacteria from her body and colonise her bacteria in his own body. This helps him or her fight infection and is the start of a good immune system.

He or she is less likely to have as many digestive complaints (such as colic or reflux) post-birth. Due to the exquisite cocktail of hormones that are produced during labour and birth, mother and baby are drawn to each other and both can't help but fall in love in the early hours and days after birth.

A mother has an intense desire to protect and love her baby, which he feels very quickly. This means that he knows he is valued, wanted and loved. He knows he is welcome and important.

This is already the start of building healthy self-esteem for this baby, which may be the foundation of good things for this individual for the rest of his life.


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