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Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing: Evidence and Implications for Women, Babies, and Maternity Care
This report synthesizes evidence about innate hormonally-mediated physiologic processes in women and fetuses/newborns during childbearing, and possible impacts of common maternity care practices and interventions on these processes, focusing on four hormone systems that are consequential for childbearing. Core hormonal physiology principles reveal profound interconnections between mothers and babies, among hormone systems, and from pregnancy through to the postpartum and newborn periods. Overall, consistent and coherent evidence from physiologic understandings and human and animal studies finds that the innate hormonal physiology of childbearing has significant benefits for mothers and babies. Such hormonally-mediated benefits may extend into the future through optimization of breastfeeding and maternal-infant attachment. A growing body of research finds that common maternity care interventions may disturb hormonal processes, reduce their benefits, and create new challenges. Developmental and epigenetic effects are biologically plausible but poorly studied. The perspective of hormonal physiology adds new considerations for benefit-harm assessments in maternity care, and suggests new research priorities, including consistently measuring crucial hormonally-mediated outcomes that are frequently overlooked. Current understanding suggests that safely avoiding unneeded maternity care interventions would be wise, as supported by the Precautionary Principle. Promoting, supporting, and protecting physiologic childbearing, as far as safely possible in each situation, is a low-technology health and wellness approach to the care of childbearing women and their fetuses/newborns that is applicable in almost all maternity care settings.