Despite being endlessly satisfying, the bond we create with our children is an essential part of human interaction as well. Apparently, it provides health and physical benefits and helps us establish secure attachment styles.
Yet, not many are aware of the fact that these positive effects actually occur at a biological level.
Namely, oxytocin is a hormone discovered by Sir Henry Dale in 1906. Its name was derived from the Greek “ωκυτοκίνη”, meaning “swift birth”, which relates to the release of the hormone in large amounts during childbirth, and helps the uterus to contract during birth and the ejecting of milk when breastfeeding.
This hormone regulates numerous social behaviors needed for reproduction and care for the children, like the ability to bond, explore the environment, and interact with others.
It supports the strong bonding between mothers and their children, and since it affects our reproductive and maternal behaviors, it is also known as the “love molecule”.
It is correlated with trust, and thus supports emotional relationships, group inclusion, and bonds.
Our survival is affected by love and social bonding, as they help reproduction and improve the development of the brain by managing stress and anxiety. Human beings are supposed to be social animals, and we can experience various issues if we live in a social isolation.
Speaking from an evolutionary perspective, group exclusion causes physical and developmental disorders and raises the risk of death in both, animal models and primitive human tribes.
The Mother-Infant Bond
The release of this hormone is stimulated by the healthy bonding of the mother with her child, which starts during the period of pregnancy.
For instance, if the mother experiences stressful situations during the gestational period, might cause behavioral deficits in later adulthood of the child, as stress influences the oxytocin systems.
Studies in rats have shown that the pairing of stressed mothers and offspring led to an increased aggressiveness and anxiety-like behaviors, due to the reduced levels of oxytocin in the brain.
The bond created between the mother and the child, and the positive social experiences make the basis for the healthy social and emotional development of the child.
Studies have found that the levels of oxytocin in both mothers and fathers of 4-6-month-old children were correlated with the level of social engagement and bonding of the child with the parents.
Moreover, increased levels of this hormone are linked to stronger mother-infant bonding.
For example, hugging can increase the levels of oxytocin in the body and thus strengthen the relationship between the parent and child, lower stress, and reduce social deficits later in life.
The release of oxytocin in the child and mother can also be stimulated by actions like breastfeeding, skin-to-skin contact such as hugging and thus boost their bonding.
Abnormal bonding, like a lack of hugging, can have negative effects on the confidence of the child, as well as the ability to establish relationships with other people.
Therefore, take your time and enjoy some time hugging with your child every single day, to show love and affection, but also increase the levels of oxytocin, and support its brain development.