Breastfeeding Grow Newborn & Infant Pregnancy & Birth

Baby Bonds: How Hormones Knit a Family

Written by Linda Palmer

No books. No parenting classes. We can watch in other mammals how, without any lessons, natural hormones lead a new mother and her babies to remain in close contact, to feed, and to bond with each other. Mother is rewarded with calm and healthy feelings as a result of caring for her babies. Babies are rewarded by feelings of coziness and safety for staying close to mother and for regu- larly suckling. No one must calculate how often and how long to feed, or determine where is best for babies to sleep. When left to proceed naturally, the greatest health and closest family ties result.

Scientists have long studied hormonal interplays in parenting mammals and infants, and how these reorganize their brain functions to be effective and satisfied in their roles. More recently, biochemical research has related these findings to humans. Researchers have also learned what happens when these actions are interfered with, finding diminished mood, health, and survival.

Hormones provide fantastically rewarding sensations when positive parenting behaviors are performed, giving parents powerful urges to continue to care for their infants. They similarly provide babies with tools to seek needed caregiving, and with pleasant rewards when their needs are met. Without taking great efforts to avoid and ignore such urges, something that only humans do, parents will naturally follow the guidance of their hormones, nurturing their babies, responding quickly to their cues, and maintaining physical closeness with them. Loving, attached families are naturally created.

Hormones help sustain a pregnancy and prepare mother’s body for creating milk. Outside of some possible effects from stress or nutrition, mom generally doesn’t have a lot of choice in what goes on during this stage. It’s just as well, as modern humans tend to interfere with so many of the intended health and joy-bringing processes during and after birth. A mother is created as mammary glands mature and the placenta grows during pregnancy. At the same time, hormones create new circuitry in caregiving portions of mother’s brain. These cause her to respond in affectionate maternal manners when certain parenting hormone releases later transpire.

During and after birth, amazing hormone interplays occur. All these chemistries can be largely enhanced or deterred by the support or interferences of those involved, although sometimes also by happenstances beyond anyone’s control.

When it comes to creating a family, the hormone oxytocin is the major player, with a large role during natural labor and with invaluable activities just after birth. After the birth day, oxytocin’s role continues. Skin- to-skin contact creates the highest oxytocin releases for the whole family. Simple nearness encourages it too. This “love” hormone promotes closeness and bonding, provides for a sense of well-being, and enhances the immune system, heart health, and mental health. We all experience oxytocin releases when hugging a puppy or joining happy social gatherings, but its potential forces are most powerful between mothers and their babies.

Exceedingly high oxytocin levels immediately after a natural birth help to contract mother’s uterus to reduce bleeding, a necessary event for her survival. They also cause both mother and baby to initially gaze intently at each other, imprinting upon each other’s faces and odors. Baby is soon attracted by odor to mother’s nipple, and the first suckles help to enhance oxytocin release in both, to continue contracting mother’s uterus and to deepen the initial bonding process. Calm, contentedness, and a bit of amnesia for the recent labor and birth process pour into mother and baby.

When a mother has a scheduled cesarean section with no labor, she and baby miss the initial huge oxytocin surges. Likewise, when Pitocin, or artificial oxytocin, is used to initiate and maintain labor, and to later contract the uterus, it does not cross the blood barrier into the brain. When natural labor is not experienced, and when breastfeeding does not occur soon after birth, mom and baby lose out on the initial brain releases of oxytocin. Calm, peacefulness, sense of well-being, and bonding are thus not created. This can be the beginning of post-partum depression for some. Immediate and prolonged physical contact and frequent nursing attempts after a surgical or medically induced birth can help to reclaim some of the hormonal opportunities.

Even the tiniest interference in the natural birthing process—putting a hat on the newborn’s head—has been shown to block mother’s opportunity to drink in the wonderful, calming aroma of her baby’s head, which provides hormone-like euphoric benefits. Extra hygiene for mother prevents the newborn from enjoying the calming aromas (pheromones) exuded by his mother.

After the birth day, frequent closeness, skin-to-skin contact, and continued breastfeeding carry on the oxytocin opportunities for mom and baby. Bottle-feeding can be performed with skin-to-skin contact and close snuggling to create beneficial oxytocin releases.

Persistent regular body contact and other nurturing acts by parents produce a constant, elevated level of oxytocin in the infant, which in turn provides a valuable reduction in the infant’s stress-hormone responses. Multiple psychology studies have demonstrated that, depending on the practices of the parents, the resulting high or low levels of oxytocin will control the permanent organization of the stress-handling portions of the baby’s brain. This, in turn, affects the child’s life-long mental and physical health and his long term bonding capabilities.

With all its powers, oxytocin is but one of many chemicals that act to ensure that baby finds the love and care he needs. Prolactin release in mother, in response to baby’s suckling, helps to bring more calm to mother and leads to more maternal pathway developments in her brain. Other hormones released in mother and baby during suckling bring additional happy-feeling rewards to support breastfeeding desires.

Sleepiness is hormonally created in baby as a result of skin-to-skin contact, suckling, and the consumption of hormones in mother’s milk. Mother’s bodily response to the closeness and suckling also provide sleep-supporting hormones for  her  during the night. Brief whimpers from baby can initiate mother’s milk let-down. Prolonged, unanswered crying will cause stress hormone releases in both baby and parents, delaying sleep and reducing both physical and emotional health.

Being frequently near the pregnant mother causes various hormonal releasesin the father’s brain that begin to enhance his neural pathways for protective behaviors and bonding capabilities. Once the child is born, if father maintains frequent nearness to baby, the hormonal creation of a paternal brain kicks-in more strongly. Biologists have chiefly studied biological mothers and fathers but anyone can easily see that any other frequently close caregiver is similarly affected.

Baby, in complete need of warmth, protection, feeding, teaching, and socialization, is programmed to be happiest when her resources remain close and attentive. Hormonal alarms lead baby to cry out and seek attention whenever separated from her providers. Mother’s maternally reorganized brain knows just how to respond. When she does so, her milk production and health-providing hormones then work best. Mother’s hormonal reactions to close, affectionate parenting not only strengthen her desire to continue to do so, but they reduce her sexual desires and her fertility. This naturally allows her to concentrate her resources on the helpless infant while he is in greatest need. When father is also highly involved with the infant, hormonal activities increase his desires to stay with and protect mother and baby, yet decrease his sexual desires, bringing him in harmony with mother. In these manners, natural hormonal processes, when not ignored or rehearsed away, are meant to create a healthy, satisfied, tightly knit family.

Infants universally cry if laid down alone. If we allow ourselves to listen, our hormonally programmed neurons encourage us in the proper response. Babies are designed to be frequently fed in a fashion that requires skin-to-skin contact, holding, and available facial cues. Advantageous, permanent brain changes result in parents and infants from just such actions. Contented maternal behaviors grow when cues are followed. A father’s participation encourages his further involvement and creates accord between father and mother. Frequent proximity and touch between baby and parents can create powerful family bonding—with many long-term benefits. When simply allowed to, hormones can create a family.

About the author

Linda Palmer