We all know that when a woman has a natural labor and birth — that is, one that is not induced or augmented by any drugs, nor when other medications are given — that there is a complex arrangement of hormones guiding the birth process. Most of us “birth junkies” are also aware that as the labor contractions get stronger, our ability to handle them also gets stronger, with the lovely oxytocin that helps the uterus contract also helping our brains cope with the pain, and even inducing a “runner’s high”. Now, we can add,

The massive surge in the maternal hormone oxytocin that occurs during delivery might help protect newborns against brain damage, a new study in rats suggests….

Ben-Ari believes that by “quieting” cells, oxytocin may prevent brain damage due to oxygen deprivation that can occur during labour. In fact, they found that the brain cells of rat pups delivered naturally lived for an hour when placed in a solution that lacked oxygen. Brain cells from pups with a mother whose oxytocin was blocked by atosiban lived only 40 minutes.

By making cells less responsive, oxytocin reduces the oxygen they require for energy production, the team says. The hormone could provide a natural, temporary safety net to avoid damage from lengthy or difficult deliveries, says Ben-Ari.

“It’s like putting a television in standby mode to reduce energy consumption,” explains team member Rustem Khazipov.

[Click here for the rest of the article on this rat study from a couple of years ago.]

While the authors noted that babies born by C-section would miss out on this oxytocin surge, they also point out that most such babies wouldn’t need to be “put on stand-by” because they don’t go through labor (or it is cut short).

This article makes me have a few observations and questions on this whole subject. Assuming they’re right, this may be part of the mechanism that helps all babies able to withstand labor. When the uterus contracts, maternal blood flow to the placenta decreases, which means that the oxygen to the baby also slows down. While there is typically plenty of extra blood and therefore oxygen in the placenta to withstand a contraction, this may be part of the reason that the fetal heartrate drops with contractions and rebounds after it. We know that artificial oxytocin (Pitocin, in the U.S.) makes the uterus contract but does not cross into the mother’s brain the way natural oxytocin does. I wonder if the artificial oxytocin does a similar thing in the brains of babies. Why should it be different? — why should Pitocin cross into the fetal brain but not into the maternal brain? If natural oxytocin crosses the maternal brain, it likely also crosses into the fetal brain; and if, as these researchers suggest, natural oxytocin helps to prevent brain damage by making brain cells need less oxygen, and artificial oxytocin doesn’t, it may be more dangerous than I had ever considered.

There are a lot of people today that are worried about a lot of mental problems that seem to be so common nowadays and were unheard-of in past generations. Part of this is probably attributable to our horrible diet (especially too much sugar, caffeine, and artificial colorings and flavorings for the ADD/ADHD kids), much may be due to too much TV (visual stimulation combined with physical inertia) or poor parenting (letting unruly kids get more and more uncontrollable). Everybody has a particular “whipping boy” in this, and I certainly don’t absolve any single factor from playing a potential role. But what if part of it is due to lack of natural oxytocin before birth slightly damaging brain cells?

Another “rabbit trail” I thought of along these lines is the immediate clamping and cutting of the cord at birth. I plan on doing more research into this, but so far have not seen any studies that show any benefit to any baby with routine clamping of the cord immediately after birth. I have noted, however, many births in which the cord is clamped before the baby has even begun to breathe, and the baby cries out as if it is suffocating. My personal opinion is that it is. Whether this is enough to cause problems to the baby remains to be seen. But imagine that the above scenario is correct — that artificial oxytocin does not cross into the fetal brain and therefore does not have the protective effect on the brain that the researchers noted; then add to the cumulative effect of multiple contractions with diminished oxygen, a complete cutting off of oxygen via the umbilical cord before the baby has even begun to breathe, and you may end up with some problems.

It is accepted that males are in many ways more susceptible to many diseases and health problems, and autism is one of them. I don’t remember the ratio, but I do know that autistic boys outnumber autistic girls by quite a bit. Maybe this has something to do with it.

I know that not every child with autism has had a labor augmented with Pitocin, so I’m certainly not arguing for a strict cause-and-effect, here. But I do think it is something that merits a closer look. We study SIDS to see what factors babies who died from SIDS had in common, compared to babies that did not die of SIDS; we need to have a similar spotlight on children with autism and other problems to see what commonalities they have. The answer may be surprising. Who would have thought that having a fan on in a baby’s room would reduce the risk of SIDS? But I recently heard it does. What factors may reduce the risk of your baby being diagnosed in childhood with autism or ADD? We need to know.


2 Responses

  1. Great points. I think one reason why it’s so hard to get this kind of thing looked at is because there is so much potential mother-guilt wrapped up in it (and potentially care-provider guilt). I cannot imagine how I would feel if I had done something like accept Pitocin and then found out that it might have attributed to something as signifigant as autism in my child… Mother guilt is tough – we feel guilty about lots of things we shouldn’t, I think – the whole “I did the best I could at the time; learned more and did better” goes a long way to mental health, I think: mothers are not perfect! And that’s okay – of course we’re not perfect, we’re human… But I think there’s a tremendous amount of defense mechanisms & resistance to change around birth partially because no one wants to think their decisions/choices are responsible.

  2. Great article! That is so interesting! And I love what “Christina” said in her comment – spot on!!

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