Labor and Birth
Labor is the physical efforts of expulsion of the fetus and the placenta from the uterus during birth (parturition). Toward the end of the third trimester, estrogen causes receptors on the uterine wall to develop and bind the hormone oxytocin. At this time, the baby reorients, facing forward and down with the back or crown of the head engaging the cervix (uterine opening). This causes the cervix to stretch and nerve impulses are sent to the hypothalamus, which signals for the release of oxytocin from the posterior pituitary. The oxytocin causes the smooth muscle in the uterine wall to contract. At the same time, the placenta releases prostaglandins into the uterus, increasing the contractions. A positive feedback relay occurs between the uterus, hypothalamus, and the posterior pituitary to assure an adequate supply of oxytocin. As more smooth muscle cells are recruited, the contractions increase in intensity and force.
There are three stages to labor. During stage one, the cervix thins and dilates. This is necessary for the baby and placenta to be expelled during birth. The cervix will eventually dilate to about 10 cm. During stage two, the baby is expelled from the uterus. The uterus contracts and the mother pushes as she compresses her abdominal muscles to aid the delivery. The last stage is the passage of the placenta after the baby has been born and the organ has completely disengaged from the uterine wall. If labor should stop before stage two is reached, synthetic oxytocin, known as Pitocin, can be administered to restart and maintain labor.
An alternative to labor and delivery is the surgical delivery of the baby through a procedure called a Caesarian section. This is major abdominal surgery and can lead to post-surgical complications for the mother, but in some cases it may be the only way to safely deliver the baby.
The mother’s mammary glands go through changes during the third trimester to prepare for lactation and breastfeeding. When the baby begins suckling at the breast, signals are sent to the hypothalamus causing the release of prolactin from the anterior pituitary. Prolactin causes the mammary glands to produce milk. Oxytocin is also released, promoting the release of the milk. The milk contains nutrients for the baby’s development and growth as well as immunoglobulins to protect the child from bacterial and viral infections.