There is no child like your own! Biology offers a few clues regarding why all parents, adoptive and biological, have such a unique attachment and protective drive towards their own children. Whether maternal instinct or paternal instinct, these parental instincts are in part caused by little chemical messengers, hormones, that elicit parental behavior in humans and animals alike. Taking faith in you parental instinct can help you be a great parent.
Changes in our thoughts, feelings and actions are in-part caused by the changes of pregnancy, placental hormones, and hormones released by the baby. The biological course of pregnancy itself will help you be a great parent! And while the changes in pregnant women are profound, increases in parental hormones are also measurable in fathers, partners, and adoptive parents. We also know that skin-to-skin contact with newborns increases the levels of these hormones for all caretakers, as does increased time spent caring for your baby. Clearly mind, body, spirit, parent and child, are all interconnected. An increase in your parenting hormones is a biological boost that will help you be a great parent. What follows will help you understand the biology behind parental behavior, and how to maximize your parenting hormones.
Our Hormone’s Effect on Parenting
Research about our hormones shows us that being a great parent comes from the inside out as well as the outside in. While outside learning is helpful, turning to your inner wisdom is equally important, if not more-so. Amazing! Here you will find a brief and simplified introduction to the hormones directly involved with parental behavior and parental instinct. The role of these hormones in your relationship during pregnancy, and the incredible action of hormones during birth are also explained. Postpartum hormones go through major adjustment, leading us into a sustainable and meaningful parenthood. Read with awe; we are incredible people indeed
AKA “The Love Hormone,” “The Tend and Befriend Hormone,” “The Cuddle Hormone,” and “The Boding Hormone.”
Oxytocin is a much loved and studied hormone among scientists looking into love, attachment, caregiving, and health promotion. There is agreement that, at least within your “clan,” if not universally, oxytocin is the hormone involved in caregiving and affection. Oxytocin is implicated in all kinds of acts of caregiving, such as connecting with pets, spiritual leaders, or friends, offering money towards a good cause, and of course, parenting. It is thought to counteract stress, depression, and anxiety and be useful for health prevention and promotion, as well as the establishment of healthy relationships.
Peak oxytocin levels cause ejections related to creating new life: sperm, babies, and milk. Besides causing uterine contractions throughout labor, extremely high levels of oxytocin at the end of labor cause contractions in a group of muscles in the lower back. Oxytocin causes these muscles to help lift the tailbone out of the path of the baby while the uterus simultaneously gives a strong push, birthing the baby.
Oxytocin levels are heightened in pregnancy for both mothers and fathers-to-be. It is not entirely known how this occurs, but it is entirely possible that the baby initiates this whole chain of events by creating their own oxytocin and placental hormones that seem to encourage maternal production of oxytocin. Communication from pheromones between mom and her partner or spouse may elicit more loving, nurturing behavior in each other, which in turn increases oxytocin. We know that high levels of oxytocin are necessary for birth. Studies have also confirmed that women with higher levels during the first trimester have higher levels at one month postpartum, and show more affectionate, attentive, and caregiving behaviors towards their babies when compared with women who have lower oxytocin levels. Men who are more involved in newborn care have higher rates than men who spend less time caring for their baby. Higher oxytocin levels in mothers elicit “motherese” vocalizations, expression of positive feelings, and affectionate touch toward their newborns. In fathers, the effects are increased stimulatory parenting behavior including proprioceptive contact (holding baby in different angles, movements), tactile stimulation, and object presentation.
You can increase your oxytocin levels by increasing your intimacy and closeness with one another and with your baby, through breastfeeding, meditation, nurturing others, reaching out to connect with people, and by gazing at newborns! A measurable response is present within 1/7 of a second after making eye contact with your beautiful baby.
Prolactin increases steadily throughout pregnancy in both men and women. It is the hormone behind milk production. Milk production is suppressed by placental hormones until the placenta is no longer in the body. Prolactin produced by the baby seems to be involved in the adaptive abilities that help them to begin to breathe on their own and regulate their own temperature just after birth.
Less attention is paid to the additional roles of prolactin, yet a clear sense of its behavioral counterparts is beginning to emerge. Prolactin is thought to play a part in the protective and aggressive behaviors of parents when they feel their newborn is threatened in anyway. It is also known to increase vigilance, and is related to social ranking and submission. In primates the most submissive male has the lowest prolactin levels. In humans this effect seems to relate to how we come to put our children first before all other demands, although research is scanty. Another emerging finding is that the more time we spend caring for our babies, the more we have a felt need to be with them.
Endorphins work at the brain level. They act on the same receptors that opiate-family drugs affect, and have similar properties of inducing dependency, creating altered states of consciousness, pleasurable feelings, and transmuting pain. They interact with other hormones in complex ways. They are part of the transactions that induce milk production and stimulate the final maturation of your baby’s lungs.
Levels rise throughout pregnancy, but reach unprecedented and unmatched levels during birth. Endorphins are released in response to pain. They greatly increase your ability to process pain. In labor they create an altered state of consciousness which makes it easier to leave the clock in the recesses of your mind and go along with the course and intensity of labor. Between contractions you are able to drift off or even sleep, and the endorphins help you retain your inner focus. This pain-endorphin connection may play the additional role of creating a strong bond between you and your baby. Those who study animal behavior have noted that in species where long-term intensive care of young is necessary for survival, birth is painful. At the same time, too many endorphins can decrease the effectiveness of oxytocin and cause a labor to slow or stop. This may be a protective measure keeping a balance between the ability to cope and the intensity of labor.
Endorphins are also released during breastfeeding, peaking about 20 minutes into a feed, and play an important role in the nursing relationship. They are pleasurable for both mom and baby, helping grant us patience with feeding and reducing the stressful feelings that accompany around-the-clock newborn care. They may create an “codependency” between moms and babies that promotes a long-lasting breastfeeding relationship.
This is a gross over simplification as there are actually many stress hormones (cortisol, epinephrine, nor-epinephrine, etc.), each with very different effects at different times. However, there are a few facets related to parenting that may be informative.
Stress hormones have several characteristic peaks in pregnancy. For males they are heightened around 4-6 weeks after learning they will become a father. This seems to induce a fury of planning for the future, as well as increasing the alertness fathers have towards the health of their partner/spouse and baby.
In mothers, exceedingly high levels of stress hormones (such as are created by abuse) are associated with increased fussiness in babies and a variety of other long-term ill-health tendencies as their baby grows. These hormones have an organizational effect on genetic expression that can create a more sensitive response to stress signals throughout the lifetime.
Stress hormones counteract the effects of oxytocin and can suppress labor contractions and the let down of breast milk. However, at the end of labor there is a natural period of rapid increase in these hormones that stimulate strong birthing pushes. They also bring mom back to an alert state of awareness, counteracting the altered mental clarity brought on by endorphins. At birth, both mom and baby are flooded with stress hormones, which is great for making the transition to respiration, and dilates the pupils, making the first gazes into each other’s eyes remarkable. The alert attentive nature of the first hours after birth for moms and babies is due in part to these stress hormones. Moms have a flood of energy during these early moments. While stress hormones play all of these important roles just after birth, it is also important that they drop away quickly. Newborns stabilize best in an atmosphere of calm, connection, and organization in skin-to-skin contact with mom. The lower level of stress hormones allows oxytocin to do its work of continuing to contract the uterus to expel the placenta and control bleeding. Separation of mom and baby increases the stress of this time to levels too high for the wellbeing of either person. Heat also helps regulate the levels of stress hormones, which aids mom and baby both.
After your baby is born you will experience stress hormones in response to your baby’s cries. Crying is a baby’s way of communicating. Biology provides a strong impetus for us to respond. Your heart rate rises, the alerts go off, muscle tension builds, even your facial expressions display the effects of stress hormones throughout your body. Studies of primates show that the stress hormones in a baby also increase as they cry. When not responded to they reach levels as high or higher than levels induced by physical trauma. Our bodies know that this level of stress is not best for us. We have a strong internal drive towards well-being and health. The urge to offer comfort or relief when cries are heard is one clear manifestation of our beneficial and wise instincts.
In this case, the parental effects are associated with a decrease in hormone levels. Fathers-to-be experience about a 1/3 drop in testosterone levels around 3 weeks before the baby is born. Testosterone is related to aggression, sexual conquest, and drive for adventure. Theorists have suggested that a drop in testosterone may keep fathers around during the crucial early parenting months when two caregivers are essential and mothers aren’t interested in sex. Studies have shown that men who are more involved with taking care of their babies have a slower return to regular testosterone levels.
Putting it all Together
While each family certainly experiences the physiological changes of pregnancy and early parenthood in unique ways, the influences of these hormonal changes does explain undercurrent themes that most families say relate to their experience. As pregnancy moves along, vulnerability and the need for protection and connection seem to increase. Most couples find that one or the other has a strong need to start cutting back on the busy schedule, creating more time to slow down and be together.
Another common manifestation is an increased need to be certain of the wellbeing of your partner or spouse. Coming home 20 minutes late suddenly evokes feelings that your loved one may have been in a tragic accident, and you need to hear from them now! You may find that checking in with one another throughout the day by phone or text has a new imperative. If one partner walks more quickly ahead of the other strong feelings of being left, or needing them to be by you emerge in a way you haven’t experienced in the past. This is that cocktail of connective, aggressive, and heightened awareness hormones bringing you together. We now know that these changes are biologically beneficial. They increase oxytocin and may lead to a more efficient birth, improved parenting, and an abundant supply and flow of breast milk.
During labor the hormonal stage is incredibly fascinating. The interplay between oxytocin, stress hormones, prolactin, and endorphins orchestrates a birth experience where intensity and the ability to work with it increase hand-in-hand. Typically, uncertainty increases in the early-but-painful part of labor as oxytocin levels rise and contractions gain intensity. The increased intensity in turn creates an increase of endorphins and the mindset shifts from uncertainty to an altered focus. Mothers become focused internally and time and words become muted. She enters into a mental space where she can confidently handle the intensity of labor one contraction at a time, and can let her mental worry cease. As the uterus works harder and harder, fatigue sets in and mom becomes exhausted to the point where she may feel that she won’t have the strength she needs to push the baby out. Just around that corner, the stress hormones kick in and alertness and energy come surging in with them. At the moment of birth, mother and baby are fully awake and interactive, ready in all ways to meet and completely focus on one another. They are in the perfect state of readiness to make the massive transitions each will go through physiologically in the hours and days after birth. Bonding and firm attachment of the entire family are facilitated as well.
Fathers are drawn into this as well, and their own hormones and emotional connection to the birth prepare them for the same. In retrospect, the birth becomes an incredibly positive memory, awash in the influence of all those rewarding hormones.
During postpartum, these hormones increase dendrite growth in the brain, making an environment that is ripe for learning. You will increase your knowledge about your baby incredibly fast, and parenting behaviors emerge instinctively. The closer you are to your baby and the more interactions are shared, the faster and more naturally you move towards your new skill set as a parent. Breastfeeding provides a natural boost to the hormones helping this all take place, as does eye contact and skin-to-skin touch with your new baby.
Just like anyone immersed in discovery and new learning, your focus will be on your new captivating and wonderful subject; your baby. Watching every facial expression and taking note of the softness of his or her skin will deeply satisfy passing hours when your baby is brand new. As a couple experiencing the hormones of early parenting there is also huge impetus for a new sense of teamwork, and a new level of attractiveness between you. Often this is secondary to your thoughts and feelings towards your baby, but when basic needs are met and your baby is asleep, you can find in each other a new amazement with who you are, a new awareness of what you’ve created and committed to care for, and a new gratitude for all of the blessings in your life. Many couples express to me that seeing their partner as a parent brought out “a new kind of sexy” where they saw them as competent, incredible caregivers. They find their sensitivity and strength towards the baby compelling. Research has confirmed that sexual arousal for new mothers is heightened by baby caregiving statements and behaviors. How’s that for proof that prolactin and oxytocin are interacting in new ways the first few months after birth!