Oxytocin is a hormone secreted by the pituitary gland. It’s known as the bonding hormone or the love hormone because it is released when people have physical contact or bond socially and it seems to promote these behaviors.
Both men and women release oxytocin, but it is especially important for women due to its role in the birth process. It encourages uterine contractions during labor, shrinks the uterus after delivery, stimulates the production of breast milk and promotes mother-child bonding. Studies show correlation between oxytocin levels during pregnancy and feelings of connectedness to the baby. In one study, virgin female mice were known to be indifferent to a pup in distress, sometimes even stepping on them. But after injections of oxytocin, they began to act more like mothers, picking them up in their mouths and licking them.
Apparently, human or not, the higher the oxytocin level, the better the bonding. And interactions with a baby can increase oxytocin levels in both the baby and his/her caregiver. The Talking Heads song Stay Up Late summarizes this feeling well by describing playing with a baby as “having fun for no money.” And if you don’t have a baby, it’s also been shown that playing with a dog can increase levels of oxytocin in both dog and human!
While oxytocin levels in women helps make their baby irresistible, for men, oxytocin may actually promote monogamy, fidelity and trust. It also will facilitate better bonding with babies. In an experiment, fathers who were administered a dose of oxytocin via a nasal spray played more closely with their babies than dads who didn’t receive the hormone boost.
In fact, lots of research has been done with oxytocin nasal spray. One study focused on social interactions for people with autism. Previous studies had found lower blood levels of oxytocin in individuals with autism. This study tested whether, after a spray of oxytocin, children and teens with autism would be better able to recognize facial expressions. The subjects’ recognition of the emotion behind facial expressions did not change, but researchers did notice an increased activation in brain areas associated with social behavior – in particular the reward areas associated with social interaction.
We would be remiss not to mention the essential role Dr. Sue Carter* has played in understanding the role of oxytocin in social behavior. She has been studying the hormone for the past three decades. Her early studies of oxytocin in prairie voles defined the physiology of monogamy in prairie voles and laid the foundations of the science of love and attachment. Now, hundreds of scientists study the various ways in which oxytocin affects our development and behavior. She believes we are who we are because we have the capacity for love. And oxytocin is at the core of this.
Last, we’d like to remind you that Mother’s Day is this Sunday, May 14th. It’s an opportunity to recognize Mom and the role of oxytocin in your life! We at iLs wish all mothers a lovely day of togetherness and appreciation.
*Note: Dr. Carter is married to iLs friend and collaborator Dr. Stephen Porges. It’s no surprise that human connection is central to both of their work. Dr. Porges created the precursor to the Safe and Sound Protocol: A Portal to the Social Engagement System. This therapy product is now available at iLs. Read about clients who have benefitted from the intervention here.