“When two people are in love or when a mother is bonding with her baby, all of the elements of mother-infant bond are mediated through biology: “the smell, the skin-to-skin contact, the facial expressions, eye movements, body language, the kissing, the cooing, the cuddling, the tone of the mother’s voice, the baby talk. This is all part of the orchestration of bonding between the mother and the baby.”
–Dr. Deepak Chopra
The Importance of Oxytocin in the Chemnistry Between Mother and Child
The maternal bond is a complex one, consisting of more than just chemnistry between mother and child. Chemistry, in its most literal sense, is just one of the many components used by nature to build this important life-sustaining relationship. One of the most powerful chemicals at work during the bonding process between mother and child is oxytocin. Oxytocin, sometimes called the love hormone, is credited for making monogamy and trust between friends possible as well as helping to create positive chemnistry between mother and child.
A research study of 62 pregnant women showed that mothers who had higher levels of oxytocin in their systems during the first trimester of pregnancy demonstrated more bonding behaviors such as gaze, touch, and baby talk after the child was born. The good news is that oxytocin is a gift that keeps on giving because touch is one of the things that causes and increase in the body’s production of the hormone. Higher levels during pregnancy results in mothers touching their infants more, which in turn increases production during infancy. Conversely, other studies have shown that women suffering post-partum depression have low levels of oxytocin.
Oxytocin begins to be released by elevated levels of estrogen during pregnancy. Even a mother’s sense of smell, as well as that of her newborn, is affected by it, allowing them to recognize one another’s scent. This scent recognition is part of the process of imprinting and helps the baby find the mother’s nipple.
One of the wonderful qualities of oxytocin is that it is transferred back and forth between mother and child. Many studies have demonstrated that oxytocin controls the part of the baby’s brain that handles stress, and helps promote secure attachment. The quality of that attachment continues to play a part in an individual’s ability to handle stress throughout the rest of their lives.
If oxytocin levels are too low, stress results in elevated levels of cortisol, which can cause changes in brain structure in response to stress that can lead to symptoms such as high blood pressure. New fathers also have elevated levels of oxytocin, which increases according to the amount of physical contact he has with the baby
The Role of Prolactin and Opioids in the Chemnistry Between Mother and Child
Prolactin is another important element in the chemnistry between mother and child. During sleep, it maintains immune function and maintains reproductive organs, including the release of milk in the mother’s breasts. Additionally, it has a relaxing effect. Like oxytocin, elevated levels are found in both mother and father. When levels of prolactin are elevated for a prolonged period, it stimulates the production of natural opioids. These opioids produce a pleasurable sensation and further strengthen the bonding process.
Many parents report feelings of withdrawal when away from their infants, and part of that has a basis in chemical reality. Finally, breastfeeding also produces dopamine and norepinephrine, a by-product of it. Those chemicals produce the alert energy necessary to function despite the lack of sleep caused by an infant’s need of frequent care and feeding. Norepinephrine also reduces the baby’s stress, which creates a state most advantageous to learning.
Through nature’s chemistry, coupled with physical contact, voice, and facial expressions, the baby is able to determine the safety of its environment by perceiving its mother’s emotional states.
Better Living through Natural Chemistry
One of the most positive results of the research on the chemistry between mother and child has been the change in hospital policies that resulted from the realization of the importance of touch in triggering these important chemical reactions. Hospitals now encourage mothers to touch their infants born prematurely. An article by PBS points to a study led by neuroscientist Amir Lahav, from Harvard Medical School, which concluded that in addition to touch, even exposing premature babies to recordings of their mother’s voice and heartbeat improves functioning in the auditory cortex portion of their brains.
The chemistry between mother and child is a beautifully complex symphony orchestrated by nature to continue the cycle of life and increase the joy of living. Part of its beauty is that it is set into motion by the desire for human connection and conducted by its realization.