Scientists have known for decades that animals with less oxytocin exhibit slower pup retrieval and less licking and grooming of their babes, but not much research has been done on human parenting and oxytocin until the last decade.
The research results are fascinating. Scientists have found that women’s oxytocin levels during their first trimester of pregnancy predict their bonding behavior with their babies during the first month after birth.
Additionally, mothers who had higher levels of oxytocin across the pregnancy as well as the postpartum month also reported more behaviors that create a close relationship, such as singing a special song to their baby, bathing and feeding them in a special way, or thinking about them more. Quite simply, the more oxytocin you have, the more loving and attentive you are to your baby.
Interestingly, this goes for dads, too. The more oxytocin, the more loving and physically affectionate a father is. AND the more loving the father is, the more his baby responds to Dad by gazing happily at him and engaging in exploratory play with him.
So here's the obvious question. If you don't have high oxytocin levels, are you just fated to be a lousy parent, and your kids are out of luck? Or are there ways for us to increase our oxytocin levels?
The bad news is that we can't just take oxytocin pills to increase blood levels because oxytocin doesn’t cross the body’s “blood/brain barrier,” except in the form of nasal sprays (and long-term use of oxytocin spray can damage your brain).
The good news is that it's actually easy to increase your brain's production of oxytocin!
We can all raise our oxytocin levels, every day. Some activities that will help you produce more oxytocin: meditation, connecting deeply with another human being, yoga, exercise, massage, worshiping, loving a pet, participating in a group that you enjoy, engaging in loving sex, singing, dancing, gardening, volunteering, loving your baby….
You could probably add to this list with your own favorite, replenishing activities. Highest on the list would be loving connections with intimate others, from partners to children to friends. Quite simply, we produce oxytocin when we feel love.
And for new moms who wonder about their oxytocin levels: the single best way to increase your oxytocin is to breastfeed your baby. Not only do your blood levels increase, but your body makes more receptors, permanently increasing your feelings of love -- and your ability to feel loved.
Because the even better news is that the more oxytocin we produce, the more oxytocin receptors our nervous system produces!
That means that the more oxytocin we produce, the more receptors we produce, and the more love we feel. It's an upward spiral. As the Beatles said, the love you take is equal to the love you make.
(Source: The studies referred to are by psychology professor Ruth Feldman. The first was published in the November 2007 issue of Psychological Science, and the second in the December 2012 issue of Biological Psychiatry.