Importance of Parental Bonding
Secure attachments between people (and other mammals) require trust.
The brain produces a high level of oxytocin to stimulate labor during pregnancy. After birth, oxytocin is even higher in infants than in mothers.
Additionally, in combination with prolactin (another hormone), oxytocin stimulates milk production for breastfeeding. The levels stay high for mother and baby for as long as the baby nurses.
The chemical reaction that follows is nothing short of amazing:
“Through three different release pathways, oxytocin functions rather like a system activator and often influences the release of other signaling substances such as opioids, serotonin, dopamine, and noradrenaline. Through these activations, different behavioural and physiological effects are facilitated and coordinated into adaptive patterns, which are influenced by the type of stimuli and environmental factors. ”
“Oxytocin can be released by activation of several types of sensory nerves [including in the skin]…Light pressure, warmth and stroking contribute to oxytocin release caused by ‘pleasant’ or ‘non-noxious’ sensory stimulation of the skin.” (10)
It is interesting to note that newborns instinctively use their hands in addition to their mouths to stimulate milk flow. This type of skin stimulation promotes the production of oxytocin in the mother for milk release. (11)
Instinctual Parent-Child Bond
A fascinating study of oxytocin in parents with infants found that levels increased where there was a positive interaction with their babies. In addition, increased oxytocin was found in parents who enjoyed positive close relationships with their partners and their own parents, indicating that we pass on the love hormone through positive social interaction.
Interestingly, reduced oxytocin levels in the urine of mothers stressed by parenting and negative interaction with their infants were noted. (12)
Oxytocin Can’t be Replaced
The long-term emotional and societal effects of oxytocin are tangible.
Oxytocin release during sexual activity, pregnancy, childbirth, breastfeeding, and onward directly correlates to the ability to trust and form meaningful relationships. Once a baby is weaned from her∕his mother, the brain produces oxytocin as the result of affectionate touch. Healthy personal interactions also stimulate hormone release. Hugging your child is the most natural instinct a parent has because it feels good for the both of you.
As we’ve seen, physical affection in childhood is instinctive and feels good because it fosters a solid emotional (and physical!) foundation and the ability to develop trust and strong bonds with others.
So while all of love’s mysteries will never truly be understood, we know that it’s part of who we are as a species and is necessary for our survival. Spread those hugs around—everyone needs ʹem.