So, the interplay of hormones in childbirth is intricate and complicated and only partially understood. Nonetheless, Sarah Buckley does a brilliant job of explaining it in her article on Undisturbed Birth here.
In very simple terms, oxytocin, released at the time of birth, makes our uterus contract well - it promotes efficient labour. Also known as the hormone or love (it is present at other intimate moments in our life, such as sex and breastfeeding), it is a shy hormone, which prefers to make an appearance when we feel safe and private.
Endorphins, released as a natural pain killer in response to stress, make childbirth comfortable. A woman who is flooded with these natural opiates will be alert, energised and able to cope well with the strong sensations of childbirth.
Adrenaline, often depicted as the enemy of natural birth, also has an important role to play. Levels of adrenaline rise as labour progresses, contributing to a burst of energy and supporting the urge to push as a baby is about to be born. However, if adrenaline levels are too high in early labour (as can be the case if a woman feels scared or unsafe), labour can slow down. Long labours place extra demands on the mother and can result in unwanted interventions.
Adrenaline’s effect of slowing labour, or causing it to stop altogether, makes sense in evolutionary terms. If we were birthing in the wild and spotted danger in the shape of a massive sabre tooth tiger, we would want our labour to stop so we could run away. Conversely, if that same tiger were to appear moments before the birth, we would want the whole shebang over and done with as quickly as possible, so that mum and baby can make good their escape.
That, in a simplistic nutshell, is the science. So where does Daenerys Targaryen come into it?
Daenerys has been through a lot over the last six seasons of Game of Thrones. But she keeps on emerging triumphant as the mother of various peoples and mythical creatures. What is her secret? To me, it seems that she has three main strengths:
- Unshakable self-confidence;
- A safe place to retreat to at times of danger (a pit of fire); and
- Something that makes her feel gooood (a couple of dragons).
(Warning: this metaphor is about to get tenuous...)
In Season 6 Episode 4, Deanerys seems to be pretty down on her luck. Her progress towards conquering the world (giving birth) has stalled; she is trapped in a room of tired, once powerful but now downtrodden women (midwives on a bad day); and her future success depends entirely on a bunch of men who aren’t 100% down with women’s rights (to be clear, most doctors DO NOT belong to this category… but there is always the odd one). Nonetheless, her confidence in her own power is rock solid, and she is calm, always calm - no adrenalin for Deanerys.
At one point, a couple of gallant men offer to save her from her sorry fate, but she declines their intervention - she, better than anyone else knows what she needs to get things back on track.
Now, for your average labouring woman, a safe place might be a bedroom, a cupboard, the bath, a toilet… For Daenerys it’s a big fiery room. She owns that room; in it, her demons are conquered, and she can emerge triumphant, the master of her own body and destiny. Just look at that smug face at the end of Ep 4 - have you ever seen a woman more chuffed with herself? And surrounding this Mother of Dragons are all her new children, and she is primed to protect and care for them. Daenerys Targaryen is flooded with endorphins - birthing a tribe feels as good as riding dragons; she has 100% got it going on.
So to summarise, confidence is good - is helps us stay calm and keep adrenaline levels in check - while a safe space lets oxytocin flow freely. And if we get it right, and the endorphin’s flood in, we will feel as good as Daenerys looks at the end of Episode 4.
Apologies for those of you who don’t watch Game of Thrones. I couldn’t help myself.