Being a parent, and especially a mother of a newborn baby, exposes her to a whole gamut of feelings. Moments of intense joy are intertwined with feelings of anxiety, ambivalence and concern. The old Chinese concept of Yin-Yang where the light side is complemented by a dark side is a constant flow and very real for many parents.
Interestingly, this dual nature of existence is mirrored in our human bodies. One system – the fight/flee system – is designed to respond to threats to our survival. This is an inborn, “pre-wired” response. When this system is activated, the dominant feelings are acute alertness, fear and anger. This system makes us feel stressed. Luckily, we also have another system which is devoted to rest and relaxation or (literally) re-creation. When this system gets activated, our behavior and emotions change. Instead of fear and anger, we feel calmness, trust and friendliness. Inside the body, the level of stress hormones goes down, as does the heart rate, blood pressure, blood sugar and respiration rate. We are no longer prepared for defense, but become empathetic, sensitive and interested in our surroundings. These two systems help us maintain balance.
It will probably come as no surprise that your rest and recreation system is the one that is most supportive of your baby’s optimum development. Yet sometimes life, especially with a newborn, is just plain challenging, and, despite our best intentions, it can be difficult to tip the balance in favor of the rest and recreation system.
Does science and the many recent breakthroughs and insights into the functioning of the brain offer us any help?
One particular hormone – oxytocin – has attracted attention among researchers for its multiple roles in reproduction, social interaction, stress management and parental caregiving. It is a hormone in the pituitary gland which has uterine-contracting and milk-releasing actions. The body produces it to induce active labor by increasing the force of contractions, to contract uterine muscles after delivery of the placenta, to control postpartum hemorrhage, and stimulate milk ejection.
As early as 1906, Sir Henry Dale discovered this hormone in the brain and gave it the name oxytocin, from the Greek (oksys: quick and tokos: birth = swift birth). He later learned that oxytocin was also involved in breastfeeding, so for many years, oxytocin was tied to women and to reproduction.
In the 1990s, a female Swedish researcher, Kerstin Uvnas Moberg, noticed that she became unusually calm, socially open and empathetic when breastfeeding her children. This inspired her to conduct a series of animal experiments to investigate whether the effects of oxytocin might be related to the rest and relaxation system, and not strictly to reproduction.
She found out that oxytocin seems to be involved in quite different spheres of life. One such area is related to growth. Newborn animals given oxytocin grow faster. Oxytocin also improves the nutrient absorption and digestion in the breastfeeding mothers. Wounds were found to heal faster when oxytocin was administered.
Another area has to do with social behavior. Animals given oxytocin appeared to feel safer, and would, therefore, become more socially curious towards their fellow animals and engage in greater interaction – which would then result in an increase of oxytocin in the animals: a virtual circle. Social memory of the animals would also improve so that a female animal being exposed to a specific male after having received an injection of oxytocin would later prefer this male, despite having many others to choose from.
When it comes to stress, oxytocin works in a curious way. The first and short term effect of a supplement of oxytocin is an increase in blood pressure, heart rate and stress hormones. The initial stress of social situations in our early evolution was best served by being instantly on the alert, until we had decoded the situation. An interesting illustration is in tango dancing. It is customary to dance at least four dances together, because the stress associated with touching a new dance partner will usually disturb the first few dances.
Once the short term stress has abated, the rest and recreation system is activated. Heart rate, blood pressure and level of circulating stress hormones are reduced, as is movement. Animals are reported to settle and calm down and can also handle more physical pain.
This anti-stress effect becomes significant for parents when coupled with the remarkable finding that an injection of oxytocin in animals will effectively turn on parental caregiving behavior, even in virgin females who are sometimes known to be fearful, hostile, or, at least, indifferent towards newborns.
In humans, the quality of care giving and the affection shown by the parents towards their baby is related to the level of oxytocin in their blood. Interestingly, the child’s oxytocin level is also affected by the parents’ loving behavior. In short, when the oxytocin level goes up, the stress level is reduced and parents’ affection and appropriate stimulating care giving is increased. The Big Question then, of course, becomes what can you as a parent do to raise the level of oxytocin in your own body and enjoy all these benefits?
If you have not already given birth, you can certainly consider involving a good and well-reputed midwife in your birth. A natural birth, without the use of labor-inducing hormones and epidurals, will normally result in a natural unique surge in the level of pleasure hormones, including oxytocin, right after birth. This will contribute to an ideal beginning with your baby when viewed from an angle of hormone-induced attachment and love.
The next thing you can do is to engage in breastfeeding. The American Academy of Pediatrics recommends: “exclusive breastfeeding is sufficient to support optimal growth and development for approximately the first six months of life and provides continuing protection against diarrhea and respiratory tract infection. Breastfeeding should be continued for at least the first year of life and beyond, or for as long as mutually desired by mother and child.” Apart from the long term health benefits for yourself and for your baby, breastfeeding will also stimulate the release of oxytocin, which will in turn stimulate your milk secretion and your desire to be with your baby. Nature is wise.
Pleasant touch (via massage or gentle strokes) has also been found to increase the level of oxytocin. Being very precise, we do not yet have any scientific trials documenting what happens to the oxytocin level in the person who gives the massage or provides the pleasant touch, in this case the mother or the father. However, the typical oxytocin effects (lower blood pressure and reduction in stress hormones) have been found in the person giving the massage, suggesting that the level of oxytocin does increase.
The effect of baby carrying on the oxytocin level in the person carrying also remains to be investigated. We know from animal studies that the oxytocin level of the offspring will increase as a result of the mother’s licking and grooming, so interactions involving touch certainly have a well-documented effect on the baby.
And, we can learn from a very well thought out and executed experiment conducted with poor inner-city mothers, who would normally be severely stressed by life circumstances. When one group of these mothers carried their babies in a baby carrier, their babies had a far better psychological development, compared to babies in the control group. The mothers in the control group had their babies in an infant seat most of the time, and thus, had significantly less physical contact.
Babies’ development is very dependent on loving and appropriate care giving. Parents who provide loving and appropriate care giving have been found to have relatively high levels of oxytocin in their blood. From this we can assume that baby carrying affects the level of oxytocin in the care givers.
Even if the effect of touch on oxytocin levels should turn out to be one-way, from parent to baby only, the increased well-being of the baby and the accompanying greater frequency of smiles and laughter have been found to affect reward centers in the mother’s brain, which are linked to the secretion of oxytocin.
So, touching and interacting with your baby, having your baby physically close to you, by either carrying her/him in your arms or in a baby carrier, seems to create a virtual circle where the level of oxytocin is gradually increased in both of you. The frequency of hugs between mother and father has also been found to be related to their oxytocin levels as well.
Uvnas Moberg, K. The Oxytocin Factor. Tapping the Hormone of Calm, Love and Healing. Dacapo Press, 2003.