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Critical Thinking Question
Some human new mothers have difficulty bonding with their newborns, although they want to have a close relationship with their babies. Imagine that you are a psychologist investigating whether this difficulty in bonding has a neurobiological basis. Briefly describe possible neurobiological causes of this difficulty in bonding. (Lambert, 2018, p. 337)
Oxytocin is a peptide hormone that, when released, produces prosocial behaviors including trust, empathy, and altruism (Lambert, 2018). It has been shown that oxytocin is also fundamental in the development of parent-child bonding, with effects beginning in pregnancy. In a meta-analysis, oxytocin was related to parent sensitivity, which is important for parent’s ability to recognize and interpret their child’s cues. Behaviors including warmth, gaze duration, and checking behaviors were all positively correlated with parental oxytocin production, as measured by plasma and salivary oxytocin levels (Szymanska, Schneider, Chateau‐Smith, Nezelof, & Vulliez‐Coady, 2017). Parent’s levels of oxytocin are also correlated with their own childhood experiences, as well as traumatic experiences in childhood and adulthood. In a study by Bakermans-Kranenburg et al. (as cited in Syzmanska et al., 2017), oxytocin levels in parents who received harsh discipline during their childhood did not influence excessive force measured by a dynamometer when listening to a baby cry. In contrast, oxytocin seemed to reduce the excessive force used when hearing a baby cry in parents that did not have a harsh upbringing. Oxytocin’s effects on parents and children begin during pregnancy, can be influenced by environmental factors including traumatic experiences, and are even seen in relationships between mothers and their non-biological, foster infants. Therefore, it may be a combination of factors causing human mothers to have difficulty bonding with their babies, but they all likely have a neurobiological basis for this issue, including oxytocin.
A meta-analysis was conducted examining the effects of oxytocin and parent-infant interactions. Articles included peer-reviewed journals and clinical trials with search terms including ‘attachment’, ‘caregiving’, ‘parenting’, or ‘parent-child interaction’, and ‘oxytocin’ (Syzmanska et al., 2017. In addition to influencing parent sensitivity towards children, oxytocin levels are most important in parent-infant bonding. Bonding relies on the assumption that human babies possess an innate, biological function to stay in close proximity to a caregiver who will provide resources crucial for survival (Syzmanska et al., 2017). On the other hand, mothers bond with their infants by gaining a strong sense of responsibility to protect their infant. Moments after birth, oxytocin is released causing this maternal behavior. This meta-analysis also pointed out another psychophysiological state that interacts with oxytocin in bonding behaviors, stating, “oxytocin inhibits amygdala function and its involvement in processing fear and threat stimuli” (Kirsch et al. as cited in Syzmanska et al., 2017, p. 694). This suggests that oxytocin may play a role in decreasing stress, anger, and negative emotional arousal, while enhancing feelings of calmness (Syzmanska et al., 2017). Additionally, differences in brain activation were found in secure and insecure mothers, with secure mothers showing greater activation in reward-processing regions when looking the their infant’s sad face. Insecure mothers showed activation in the anterior insula, a region of the brain associated with pain and disgust (Syzmanska et al., 2017). Lastly, Syzmanska et al. (2017) found that oxytocin also plays a role in parent-child synchrony, which is the exchange of hormonal, physiological, and behavioral cues between parents and their children. Mothers with high levels of oxytocin displayed more affectionate, synchronous contact with their infants, including longer duration of maternal gaze. These findings on parent-child bonding, by oxytocin release, amygdala inhibition, and activation of different brain regions, is evidence that mothers that have difficulty bonding with their infants have a neurobiological basis for this issue.
Oxytocin has even been shown to have an effect on foster mother-infant relationships, including feelings of closeness and commitment that mothers feel towards their foster infants. In a study by Bick, Dozier, Bernard, Grasso, and Simons (2013), researchers wanted to see whether foster mothers’ oxytocin levels were associated with the electrophysiological brain activity in response to images of their infant. This current study examined the mothers’ ERPs, or event-related potentials, which are electrical potentials in the brain that are associated with cognitive “events”, assessed using electroencephalogram (EEG) (Bick et al., 2013). Forty-three foster mothers had two laboratory visits, one in which mother’s oxytocin level was measured after cuddling with her foster infant, and another in which the mother’s ERP activity was measured after viewing images of her infant, reporting commitment verbally, and displaying delight while playing with her infant for ten minutes (Bick et al., 2013). These visits were repeated three months after the initial visits. Oxytocin levels were measured via urine samples and mothers were asked to avoid any substances that could interfere with oxytocin level including nicotine, alcohol, and caffeine. The results of this study suggest that oxytocin levels were significantly associated with the amount of behavioral delight exhibited during the play interaction. Behavioral delight was assessed using a 5-point Likert scale, including displays of affection, closeness, and joy. Mothers that had higher levels of oxytocin while cuddling with their foster infant also displayed higher levels of delight while playing with their infant. Additionally, researchers found that oxytocin levels were indeed associated with the mothers’ ERP activity, with fosters mothers showing greater ERP amplitude after cuddling with their infants (Bick et al., 2013). Another interesting finding from this study was the changes that were found between the initial visit and the follow-up visit three months later. The mothers’ ERP activity while looking at an image of their infant was no different than looking at an image of an unknown infant in the first visit, but ERP activity was higher when looking at an image of their own infant in the follow-up visit. This finding, ERP activity and its link to oxytocin production, may reflect changes in the mother’s brain, suggesting that the act of looking at their foster infant’s image becomes more motivating and rewarding to the foster mother as time goes on (Bick et al., 2013). Some limitations to this study include a small sample size, as well as the unclear relation between urinary oxytocin levels used in this study, and levels of oxytocin in blood and saliva often used in other studies. Additionally, in this study, increased brain activity that was measured using EEG is associated with mothers’ “motivated attention” towards their infant, when there is a possibility that this increase in activity could be due to just being familiar with their infant’s face (Bick et al., 2013). Although there are a few limitations to this study, the findings are important because they suggest that although foster mothers do not experience birth and lactation with their infant, two physical processes associated with oxytocin production, oxytocin still plays an essential role in parent-infant bonding, even in non-biological relationships (Bick et al., 2013). This study provides more evidence of the neurobiological basis for mother-child bonding formation.
So far I have discussed the neurobiological basis of bonding, namely, oxytocin production and brain activity. In this section, I will discuss how environmental contexts, like traumatic experiences, can have an effect on mothers’ ability to bond with their children. Many studies have found that mothers who have experienced traumatic events like neglect as a child and interpersonal partner violence (IPV), as well as mothers that suffer from depression, have difficulties bonding with their infants (Lara-Cinisomo, Zhu, Fei, Bu, Weston, & Ravat, 2018). More specifically, a study by Lara-Cinisomo and colleagues (2018) of pregnant Latina women between the ages of 18 and 45 assessed the interaction between maternal depression, infant bonding, and oxytocin. They also investigated the interaction between oxytocin levels and traumatic experiences, including IPV and childhood sexual abuse, on bonding. Mother-infant bonding was assessed using questionnaires, in-person interviews, and phone interviews beginning in their third trimester of pregnancy and at four and eight weeks after giving birth (Lara-Cinisomo et al., 2018). Researchers used multiple methods: a bonding questionnaire, post-natal depression scale, and trauma interviews in which a trained investigator coded responses for the number of childhood and adult traumatic experiences. Eight weeks after giving birth, participants returned to the lab to have their oxytocin assessed via blood sample (Lara-Cinisomo et al., 2018). The study found that depression scores before birth, four weeks postpartum, and eight weeks postpartum were all significantly correlated with impaired bonding. Also, mothers who were depressed at eight weeks postpartum had lower oxytocin levels compared to non-depressed women, and women who had a history of traumatic events also had lower oxytocin levels than those without traumatic experiences (Lara-Cinisomo et al., 2018). Possibly not surprisingly, those that had a higher number of traumatic experiences, especially those with childhood sexual abuse, had lower oxytocin levels. Mothers that had histories of traumatic events did indeed have lower bonding scores than those who did not experience trauma. A very interesting interaction was found between the types of traumatic events the mother experienced and her level of bonding. Researchers found that mothers who have experienced interpersonal partner violence actually had higher bonding scores, suggesting that the experiences promoted resilience and made them feel more protective of their infants (Lara-Cinisomo et al., 2018). Although this study had a relatively small sample size due to attrition, the results give real insight into the effects depression and traumatic life experiences have on oxytocin levels and mothers’ ability to bond with their infants. It also demonstrates that the type of experience matters, and some can actually have protective factors, like increasing mother-infant bonding. This study is further evidence that bonding does have a neurological basis on mothers’ ability to bond with their babies, but also shows that environmental factors, like life experiences, have impact on bonding as well.
Overall, the literature confirms that mothers who have a problem bonding with their infant likely have a neurobiological basis for this, most likely low oxytocin levels. Oxytocin increases bonding behaviors including parental sensitivity, parent-child synchrony, and feelings of commitment. Other behaviors related to levels of oxytocin are behavioral delight including mothers’ cuddling and displays of affection toward their infant. A mother’s life experiences like interpersonal partner violence, harsh upbringings, and sexual abuse can negatively effect oxytocin levels, making it difficult to bond with their infants. Because of the importance of bonding on children’s emotional and cognitive development, as well as the physical wellbeing of both mother and child, mother-infant bonding is crucial in raising a healthy and happy child (Winston & Chicot, 2016).
After determining that mother-infant bonding has a neurobiological basis and the critical role of oxytocin in this process, as well as the importance of early bonding on children’s development, I am left feeling concerned and a little sad for these mothers. This concern is intensified by the fact that these mothers that have a difficult time bonding with their babies may be biologically predisposed to this problem, and effects of traumatic events that happened to them may have lasting, intergenerational effects. Because of this, I was interested to see if there are ways of promoting and improving mother-infant bonding, like increasing oxytocin levels. My first thought was if administering synthetic oxytocin to mothers would be helpful in improving bonding. Although, upon researching this, I was surprised to see that synthetic oxytocin is sometimes used in inducing labor and preventing postpartum hemorrhage, and negative long-term effects have been noted. Some of the consequences of synthetic oxytocin are greater depressive and anxiety symptoms in mothers postpartum (Gu, Feeley, Gold, Hayton, Robins, Mackinnon, . . . Zelkowitz, 2016). Since synthetic oxytocin seems to have negative effects in mothers, I was curious if there are natural ways to increase oxytocin levels. In reviewing the literature, I found a research study that suggests there are ways to increase oxytocin levels, including listening to relaxing music with specific beats per minute and at a certain volume level, for 30 minutes over a period of time (Nilsson, 2009). Although this study was done with those recovering from surgery, it may still have implications for mothers who would like to increase oxytocin levels, subsequently improving their ability to bond with their babies. Future research on music and other methods of increasing oxytocin is essential in determining if there are ways to change the neurobiological make-up of mothers’ brains in the hopes of enhancing their ability to bond with their infants.
- Bick, J., Dozier, M., Bernard, K., Grasso, D., & Simons, R. (2013). Foster Mother–Infant bonding: Associations between foster mothers’ oxytocin production, electrophysiological brain activity, feelings of commitment, and caregiving quality. Child Development, 84(3), 826-840. doi:10.1111/cdev.12008
- Gu, V., Feeley, N., Gold, I., Hayton, B., Robins, S., Mackinnon, A., . . . Zelkowitz, P. (2016). Intrapartum synthetic oxytocin and its effects on maternal Well‐Being at 2 months postpartum. Birth, 43(1), 28-35. doi:10.1111/birt.12198
- Lambert, K. (2018). Biological Psychology (1st ed.). New York, NY: Oxford University Press.
- Lara-Cinisomo, S., Zhu, K., Fei, K., Bu, Y., Weston, A., & Ravat, U. (2018). Traumatic events: Exploring associations with maternal depression, infant bonding, and oxytocin in latina mothers. Bmc Womens Health, 18(1), 31. doi:10.1186/s12905-018-0520-5
- Nilsson, U. (2009). Soothing music can increase oxytocin levels during bed rest after open‐heart surgery: a randomized control trial. Journal of clinical nursing, 18(15), 2153-2161.
- Szymanska, M., Schneider, M., Chateau‐Smith, C., Nezelof, S., & Vulliez‐Coady, L. (2017). Psychophysiological effects of oxytocin on parent–child interactions: A literature review on oxytocin and parent–child interactions. Psychiatry and Clinical Neurosciences, 71(10), 690-705. doi:10.1111/pcn.12544
- Winston, R., & Chicot, R. (2016). The importance of early bonding on the long-term mental health and resilience of children. London journal of primary care, 8(1), 12-14. doi:10.1080/17571472.2015.1133012
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