The Miracle of the Female Body
A woman's body is designed with all the tools necessary to endure pregnancy, childbirth and child-rearing. Hormones, physical structures, and instincts all come together to create this fascinating creature that is mother. And while her patience, energy, fortitude and emotional depth are wondrous, it is the physical endowments that make childbirth possible that are nothing short of a medical miracle.
The placenta is one of the most amazing physical structures that develop during pregnancy. Throughout the pregnancy this important organ transfers nutrients, oxygen, antibodies and hormones from your blood to the fetus, while acting as a filter for substances that could harm the baby and expelling wastes. It also produces hormones such as progesterone, which helps to maintain the pregnancy and somatommammotropin which helps increase the amount of sugars and fats in the blood, as well as estrogen, relaxin and human chorionic gonadotrophin.
The placenta is delivered approximately 10 minutes after the baby is born. In most mammalian species, the new mother bites through the umbilical cord and consumes the placenta, which is rich in prostaglandin, the hormone that stimulates the uterus to shrink and return to its normal size and expel any residual matter. According to recent findings, the placenta also contains a molecule that reduces pain by modifying the activity of our bodies' pain receptors. Some women freeze the placenta and cook it at a later date, or turn it into a powder and consume it in capsule form, which many believe can help prevent or reduce postpartum depression. The placenta also contains trace amounts of oxytocin, which helps to soothe the nerves and relax the muscles around the mammary gland for more effective milk production.
Oxytocin acts as a neurotransmitter in the brain that helps your cervix dilate before labor and causes contractions during the second and third stages of labor. When an infant begins suckling the nipple, a signal is sent to the hypothalamus to produce oxytocin which releases breastmilk through a letdown reflex. Oxytocin also reduces blood pressure and cortisol levels (the hormone released in response to stress) which increases tolerance to pain and reduces anxiety. Oxytocin from your body reaches the brain of the fetus just before delivery to calm fetal neurotransmitters, which reduces the brain's need for oxygen.
The pain of labor can be intimidating to say the least; however these pains are completely natural and understanding what causes them can help you relax and stop fighting them, as fear and tension can compound pain. The chief cause of pain during labor is the uterine contractions as these muscles work to open the cervix. The uterus is capable of exerting over 60 pounds of force per square inch during labor, and this intense sensation can be compounded by pressure on other parts of your body, like pelvic bones and ligaments, which is why the right position during labor is important. But contractions intensify gradually, allowing your body's natural endorphins to be released and giving you time to adjust mentally. You may notice some Braxton Hicks contractions in the last weeks or days of your pregnancy, which are simply your body's way of preparing for the real thing by strengthening the laboring muscles.
Many find it hard to believe that such a large object as a baby's head can pass through the cervix and vagina. But your body, once again, is naturally prepared to expand and accommodate the baby's whole body. The cervix begins to thin, or efface, during the last month of pregnancy to enable it to more easily stretch and dilate. Once your cervix has dilated 10 centimeters, it can pass the baby. Your baby will also help things along by turning his head to one side and dropping his chin to rest on his chest.
Once your baby is born, your body undergoes still more physiological changes. Your breasts begin producing colostrum, which is low in fat but high in nutrition, containing antibodies from your immune system to help protect your baby from illness in the first few days. It also acts as a laxative to help meconium move out of your baby's digestive system, and may aid in the development of the heart, brain and nervous system.
So if you are having a bad day and not feeling very well about your swollen ankles or aching back, remember that your body is miraculous. Each part of your pregnancy and labor happens for an important reason. Even after birth, the miracle will continue as your maternal instincts guide you and your body continues to release hormones to help you recover and cope. As you feel the pains of labor, remember what these pains are for and dive deep within yourself for the strength and endurance given to every woman to get through this amazing time.