It is necessary for a newborn’s survival to have a mother who cares for it and looks after its well being. Ask any mother if they love their child and you may get some strange reactions because it is expected for a mother to inherently love her offspring. What you may not know is that female hormones are responsible for much of that loving feeling between mother and child that is created when your baby is born. It is very much about chemistry.
What female hormones are responsible for strengthening the bond between mother and child?
There are several female hormones responsible for this biochemical attachment process between mother and child, but the main culprit is oxytocin.
Oxycotin has many different effects on the mother and ramps up when it’s time for labor to begin. Pitocin, the synthetic form of oxytocin, is a tool used by doctors to mimic oxytocin production and induce labor.
Females aren’t the only ones experiencing a hormone surge
Vasopressin is produced by both the mother and the father, but the effects are greater in males. The father experiences an increase in this hormone from closeness and touch, and it is responsible for increasing the desire to protect and care for the mother and child.
Prolactin is also present in both the mother and father and promotes caregiving behaviors, conditioning the mother and father to feel rewarded by family relationships and activities beneficial to the livelihood of their offspring.
Pheromones also play an important role in the bonding process, of which the bond between mother and child. Fathers become sensitive to their pregnant partner’s pheromones and instinctually prepare for creating the hormones necessary to promote attachment between mother and child. Mothers are encouraged to hold the baby on their chest, with no blankets or clothing separating them, because “skin-to-skin” contact increases the hormones that bond them to each other. These pheromones also help your baby to learn to survive and adapt to the world around it.
All of these hormones work together to orchestrate an intense bond between parent / mother and child.
The bonding between mother and child that occurs also leads to feelings of stress and unhappiness when mother and child are separated. The baby may even become physically uncomfortable if a strong bond between mother and child has been established and may exhibit symptoms similar to withdrawal when separated from its mother.
Why do mother’s bodies create these female hormones?
When a woman gives birth, she will experience the largest singular rush of oxytocin in her life. These female hormones are instruments used in many different aspects of a woman’s life, but they are integral keys to childbirth and motherhood specifically. In addition to starting uterine contractions and facilitating childbirth, when the nipples are stimulated oxytocin is produced stimulating lactation and milk ejection (Ott and Scott 1910). Both the mother and child experience oxytocin surges every time the baby breastfeeds, fortifying their bond.
Why is Oxytocin so important in building the bonds between mother and child?
Oxytocin is often referred to as the “love hormone“, and for good reason. Most studies have been performed on animals, but recently scientists are focusing more on how this hormone impacts humans and reproduction.
One of the first discoveries made about oxytocin was that it was proven to stimulate uterine contractions (Dale 1906). Sir Henry Dale, the scientist who discovered this effect after injecting a pregnant cat with Oxytocin, named the hormone after the Greek words meaning “swift birth”.
Forty-seven years later, Vincent du Vigneaud was able to sequence and synthesize oxytocin, making it the first polypeptide hormone to be lab created (Du Vigneaud 1956). Both scientists were awarded a Nobel prize with Dale winning in 1936 and Vigneaud winning in 1955.
Oxytocin and maternal behavior
Beyond that, oxytocin plays a part in what is called “maternal behavior”. In one study, rats and sheep were given oxytocin suppressors to impede their natural female hormones and the rats failed to demonstrate typical maternal behaviors. A cerebrospinal fluid infusion was administered to sheep which had never reproduced, and the sheep exhibited maternal behavior to lambs of no relation to them (Kendrick 2004).
Additionally, studies that measure the levels of oxytocin in mothers before and after birth show that mothers with higher oxytocin levels during pregnancy exhibit more maternal behaviors postpartum.
Not surprisingly, the same female hormones that are responsible for you feeling inseparable from your mate in a new relationship are the same hormones responsible for helping create the bond between mother and child. While oxytocin plays a part in so many of our bodies’ different physiological functions, its importance cannot be understated when it comes to childbirth and inciting the necessary initial bond between a mother and child.
The American Psychological Association’s Science Watch had two great quotes from scientists about oxytocin that warn us not to oversimplify a chemical formula:
“Oxytocin is not the love hormone,”
says Larry Young of Emory University.
“It’s tuning us into social information and allowing us to analyze it at higher resolution.”
Shelley Taylor of the University of California in Los Angeles adds:
“It’s never a good idea to map a psychological profile onto a hormone; they don’t have psychological profiles.”