By Maureen Salamon
Oxytocin’s nickname as the “cuddle hormone” is well-earned, since many studies have proven its ability to promote attachment not just between mother and child, but among groups.
One of the primary bonds among mammals, of course, is between mother and baby, and much research has focused on oxytocin’s role in this process. According to a November 2007 study in the journal Psychological Science, pregnant women with higher levels of oxytocin in their third trimester bonded more strongly with their newborns.
Conversely, animal studies have shown that those with no oxytocin are slower to pick up their pups or even groom them, according to the Association for Psychological Science. The hormone affects social interactions in many animals, from dogs and monkeys to mice and moles, according to Dr. Kai MacDonald, an adjunct professor of psychiatry at University of California-San Diego.
But should we dub oxytocin the attachment hormone?
“That term has perhaps become worn with use,” says MacDonald, who also has researched oxytocin’s effect on schizophrenics. “But when we think of attachment as an ecological or a biological phenomenon, it’s probably spot-on.”
The 2007 Psychological Science study observed mother-child interaction, defining the level of attachment in four aspects: gaze, affect, touch and vocalization. The 62 mothers completed extensive surveys and an interview on their bond-related feelings, and researchers used this information to compute the link between oxytocin and attachment.
Results found that women with higher oxytocin levels throughout their pregnancy and in the first months after birth reported behaviors – such as singing, feeding and bathing their infants in specific ways – that promoted an exclusive relationship.
A 2009 study in the journal Neuropsychopharmacology found that the sight of their infants’ tears and smiles lit up the brain reward centers of mothers who reported secure attachments to their own parents.
Monitoring the women for 14 months after their babies were born, researchers from the Baylor College of Medicine drew blood to measure oxytocin levels and performed MRI scans to observe how the mothers’ brains responded to pictures of their own babies and those of infant strangers.
The images of less securely attached mothers showed lower activity in the brain’s reward centers, and secure women also released more oxytocin, according to the study.
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Written by Maureen Salamon. For more information contact Bryan Post, Managing Editor of Oxytocin Central firstname.lastname@example.org or call (405) 476-1983