The bond between a mother and an infant is remarkable, thanks to a natural hormone mothers release called oxytocin. “The love hormone” rises in women after birth and helps with the infant child bonding process. Recent research published in Biological Psychiatry concluded that fathers may also have rising levels of oxytocin. Even though the hormone is usually associated with maternal behaviors, the results showed that mothers and fathers had similar levels of oxytocin in their blood plasma.
The investigators set out to answer three questions: How do the oxytocin levels of mothers and fathers differ? Do mothers and fathers maintain stable oxytocin levels during the first six months of parenthood? And are oxytocin levels related to parenting styles? To answer their questions, the researchers recruited 80 cohabitating couples with new infants. They measured maternal and paternal oxytocin levels a few weeks after the births of their infants, and again six months later.
When the first blood tests were taken, each parent was video-recorded interacting with the infant for ten minutes. The “parenting behaviors” fell into two main categories: affectionate and stimulating. Affectionate behaviors included actions such as gazing at the infant, softly touching it, and cooing at it. Stimulating behaviors included actions like changing the baby’s position and presenting it with objects.
Each individual’s oxytocin level remained relatively stable while showing a small, but statistically significant, increase during the first 6 months of parenthood. The researchers explain, “the significant rise in oxytocin during the first 6 months of parenting may suggest that oxytocin increases in parents as their relationship with the infant evolves.”
Perhaps most interestingly, individuals with higher oxytocin levels exhibited more parenting behaviors than individuals with lower oxytocin levels. That’s right, oxytocin levels could have a direct impact on parenting. For the parents with the high oxytocin levels, the affected behavior categories differed depending on gender. High oxytocin levels seemed to promote more affectionate behavior in mothers, like lots of cooing and hugging. As for the fathers, they displayed more stimulating behavior, such as showing the baby an object.
Engaged parenting is known to promote the healthy emotional development of children. The researchers propose that their results could be used to define “normal” oxytocin levels against which to compare the oxytocin levels of parents suspected to be at risk. If, for example, a mother or father has trouble bonding with a child, his or her oxytocin level could be tested. If it turned out to be low, the parent could be diagnosed with a hormone imbalance that perhaps could be treated with a drug. Although the science isn’t there yet, the results of this study suggest such possibilities.