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Labor Like a Cat

Birth of a Kitten, originally uploaded by Special.

This article from explains why humans have a much harder time at labor than other animals. It's not only the bend in a woman's birth canal, writes Sarah Buckley. It's more because we don't follow our instincts. These are the same instincts that cause your cat to have her kittens in a safe, quiet place -- and they're driven by the same neurochemicals.

Buckley writes,

    All mammals seek a safe place to give birth. This “nesting” instinct may be due to an increase in levels of prolactin, which is sometimes referred to as the nesting hormone. At this stage, as you may have observed with your cat, interference which the nest- or more importantly with the feeling of safety- will stall the beginning of labour.

    Even after labour has started, there are certain conditions that will slow, or even stop the process. If the fight-or-flight hormones are activated by feelings of fear or danger, contractions will slow down. Our mammalian bodies are designed to give birth in the wilds, where it is an advantage to postpone labour when there is danger, and to seek safety.

Buckley is author of  "Gentle Birth, Gentle Mothering."

Romance vs. Love

Mike and I were talking the other day with a friend about a third friend's romantic situation. After some online dating adventures, she'd found a woman who seemed like a really good woman: secure, available, responsive. The problem, of course, was that she wasn't really exciting.

Our friend missed the passionate arousal she'd felt in her previous relationship with a woman who strung her along but wouldn't commit. My advice was: "Hold onto this one, and love will come."

Mike said: "You can’t make yourself fall in love with someone."

He's right, and he's wrong.

You probably can't deliberately fall in love with someone, but falling in love isn’t the same as loving. Falling in love -- or being "in love" -- is the waterfall of exciting, focusing neurochemicals that keep you up talking excitedly all night, making love into the morning when you should be going to work, obsessively remembering everything about the Other. It's lot of fun -- as long as everything goes right.

Loving is different. Loving invokes the brain and body's neurochemical system for balancing and healing, what Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg calls "the calm and connection system." Loving ties the rewarding internal opiates to oxytocin, teaching the body on its most basic level that the loved one is the source of comfort and support. Endo-opiates provide the reward, and oxytocin provides the social bond.

Psychologists who study attachment are finding that adult relationships follow the pattern of the first relationship with Mother. If she didn’t teach you to love well by giving you the love you needed, you may never be able to love -- as opposed to being in love with -- your partner.

R. Chris Fraley, an associate professor at the University of Illinois and one of the top researchers studying attachment, writes,

There is now an increasing amount of research that suggests that adult romantic relationships function in the same ways as infant-caregiver relationships, with some noteworthy exceptions, of course. … it is probably the case that, while some romantic relationships are genuine attachment relationships, others are not.

Intuitively, we know that you can be in love with someone you don’t love. But I think it's revolutionary to flat-out say it: Just because you're married to someone, just because you’re their mother, you don’t automatically love them.

Back to our mutual friend: I think she needs to decide which she really wants, romance or love.

Want to know your own attachment style? Take this quiz developed by Chris Fraley.

In-Utero Trauma

For those who believe babies are a blank slate until they're born:

A study of the general population found that PTSD affects 5% of men and 10% of women. Studies also show a greater likelihood of PTSD development in the children of trauma survivors, including data on babies born to women who were pregnant and escaped from the World Trade Center on September 11 suggesting in utero and other developmental effects.

Science Daily: New Research Offers Insight into Posttraumatic Stress Disorder

If these babies experienced and reacted to their mothers' trauma before their bodies were fully developed, it seems likely they'd react similarly to a traumatic birth.

Oxytocin: The Wonder Drug

"It has now turned out that oxytocin has a relieving effect on inflammation. "

So says a patent application for oxytocin therapy  filed  last week by Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg and Thomas Lundeberg, formerly researchers at the Karolinska Institute in Stockholm. They have an earlier application on file in Europe.

The latest patent application covers using oxytocin to treat inflammation caused by edema, hyperalgesia,      myeloperoxidase accumulation, cystitis, pancreatitis, cutaneous inflammation, allergic rhinitis, dermatitis, air-way inflammation, and asthma. It also covers using substances that increase the release of oxytocin or that enhance its effects (such as estrogen).

The duo also has filed for patent protection for using oxytocin to treat menopausal symptoms. While that had been tested in humans -- to good effect -- the inflammation studies have been carried out on rats.

See also: Oxytocin Eases Menopause

Medical Meddling in Birth

Healthcare providers may interfere with birth even when no intervention is necessary.

A survey of 1,573 women who gave birth to a healthy child in 2005 found that medicalizing the labor and birth process still is the norm. More than four out of ten mothers said that their caregiver tried to induce their labor -- and in 35 percent of those cases, there was no medical reason for induction. And 11 percent of all mothers said they'd been pressured to have an induction.

Epidural anesthetic has become the norm, given to more than three-quarters of all mothers in the survey, while use of Pitocin was at nearly 50 percent.

No one has proven it yet, but many researchers believe that the combination of epidural and pitocin can create a hypersensitivity to oxytocin in the baby, leading to autism (see "A Whiff of Oxytocin for Autism") or contribute to an "attachment gap," interfering with the natural bonding process (see "The Mother/Baby Attachment Gap").

According to the survey, these are the commonly used interventions:

Electronic fetal monitoring: 94%
Intravenous drip: 83%,
Epidural or spinal analgesia: 76%
Urinary catheter: 56%
Membranes broken after labor began: 47%
Synthetic oxytocin (Pitocin) to speed up labor: 47%

According to Childbirth Connection and Lamaze International, sponsors of the survey, "… mothers experienced numerous labor and birth interventions with various degrees of risk that may be of benefit for mothers with specific conditions, but are inappropriate as routine measures."

The "Listening to Mothers" survey was conducted by Harris International for Childbirth Connection, a nonprofit that promotes safe, effective and satisfying maternity care for all women and their families, and Lamaze International, an organization promoting natural childbirth.

Addressing the Gender Gap in Education

The latest edition of the American School Board Journal has an article by Michael Gurian about efforts by educators to take into consideration the different ways that boys and girls learn.

Gurian writes,

On the day your district administrators look at test scores, grades, and discipline referrals with gender in mind, some stunning patterns quickly will emerge. Girls, they might find, are behind boys in elementary school math or science scores. They’ll find high school girls statistically behind boys in SAT scores. They might find, upon deeper review, that some girls have learning disabilities that are going undiagnosed.

Boys, they’ll probably notice, make up 80 to 90 percent of the district’s discipline referrals, 70 percent of learning disabled children, and at least two-thirds of the children on behavioral medication.

Gurian, who authored "The Wonder of Boys" and runs The Gurian Institute, consults with schools, community agencies and businesses kn how to accommodate gender-based differences in learning and work styles.

Although this remains a very touchy subject (see "Feminism vs. Oxytocin"), Gurian believes that teachers owe it to their students to offer instruction that acknowledges the differences and stimulates both boys and girls.

Because of neural and chemical differences in levels and processing of oxytocin, dopamine, testosterone, and estrogen, boys typically need to do some learning through competition. Girls, of course, are competitive too, but in a given day, they will spend less time in competitive learning and less time relating successfully to one another through “aggression-love” -- the playful hitting and dissing by which boys show love.

The current emphasis on cooperative learning is a good thing, and the basis of a diversity-oriented educational culture. However, because they are not schooled in the nature of gender in the brain, teachers generally have deleted competitive learning, and thus de-emphasized a natural learning tool for many boys. We’ve also robbed girls of practice in the reality of human competitiveness.


A Whiff of Oxytocin for Autism

Lewis Mehl-Madrona is an M.D. who doesn't see autism as an incurable disease. He's found that these kids have rich social and communicative lives, and that parents can learn the "secret language of their autistic children."

He's also found that they may respond to many different kinds of holistic treatments, including nutritional therapies, bodywork, acupuncture, biofeedback and behavioral education, as well as medication.

Mehl-Madrona, an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of Saskatchewan, says, "I don’t think autism is one thing. I think many things are masquerading under the same label. It's not a one-cure illness, because it's not a one-cause illness."

Therefore, when he treats kids with autism spectrum disorder, he keeps testing various treatments until he finds some that improve the symptoms. He's a pragmatist, he says. "We just try lots of things until the kids get better."

One thing that sometimes works is oxytocin -- and in some kids, he says, it works really well.

Eric Hollander, a researcher at the Mount Sinai School of Medicine, has done two studies of the benefits of oxytocin in autistic adults. In one, 15 adults showed a significant reduction in repetitive behaviors; in the second, oxytocin improved the ability of 15 adults to decipher the emotional content of speech. But both these studies used intravenous oxytocin, a process that's disturbing for children.

Mehl-Madrona uses the same oxytocin inhalers prescribed for lactating women. The kids inhale 37.5 units once a day.

"Kids who do respond to the oxytocin inhaler probably have some disorder of oxytocin production--  or maybe they make funny oxytocin," he says.

Functional MRI studies have found that the right amygdala in the brains of autistic kids are overactive. The amygdala is a hub in the brain responsible for processing information from the senses and assigning emotional meaning to it. In the normal brain, the right amygdala lights up when a person sees an angry or threatening face. But in the brains of autistic kids, the right amygdala lights up when they see any face, no matter what the expression. 

Inhaling oxytocin eases this response, keeping the right amygdala from activating so easily.
Mehl-Madrona has used the oxytocin inhaler treatment for a couple of years, in preparation for a true, randomized controlled trial.

So far, he says, "I'm encouraged.  Mostly what I'm seeing -- and it will take some more time to feel sure about this --is a decrease in repetitive, compulsive behaviors, including self-injurious ones, and better social interaction. I have one kid who is actually making empathetic statements. His mother was blown away."

Understanding the Brain Helps Heal the Heart

Daniel Siegel is the author of the very scientific "The Developing Mind," which explains the neuroscience of emotion for therapy professionals, and (with Mary Hartzell) "Parenting from the Inside Out," a user-friendly version for parents.

In this 2003 interview on Salon, Siegel explains why learning how the brain works can make it easier for us to relate better to others.

When people understand themselves via brain mechanisms, it actually alleviates a sense of shame and guilt,  opens the door to self-compassion, and guides them to a process of connection with their children that I never would have predicted would happen. For example, Mary [Hartzell] and I were teaching a course in her preschool. We talked about this amazing finding that the prefrontal cortex, this front-most part of the brain which is just behind your eyes, has been associated in cognitive neuroscience studies with processes like regulating the body and emotions, attuning to other people, being flexible, having empathy and self-awareness, being in touch with your intuition and morality, and losing your fears.

When you have a meltdown as a parent, you lose many of those nine functions, what we call the "low road." Your emotions become out of control. You're no longer attuned to your child, it's hard to remain in an empathic stance, you can't be flexible, you lose insight into yourself. Then you start having difficulty with your own old garbage, your fears come back. You lose your intuition and, sometimes, morality. When you're integrated, it's "the high road," and you have those nine functions present.

When we said this, a number of parents started to cry. One parent said, "Thank you so much, because I thought I was insane because of what I did with my child. You have now helped me understand that my brain is disconnecting inside of myself, and I'm acting in ways I don't want to act."

I've felt the same way. I was so excited to learn about how oxytocin allows us to bond with others -- and how the lack of it keeps us emotionally isolated -- because it explained issues I'd grappled with in my own relationships.

You don't need to get down to the neurochemical level to work out problems, either personally or via therapy, but for some of us, it's an illumination that can lead to change.