Bonding with your family members, particularly with your children, is an essential part of human interaction. It is deeply satisfying, allowing us to establish secure attachments and reap a wide range of physical health benefits. But, did you know that these positive changes may occur at a biological level too?
What is Oxytocin?
Oxytocin, a type of hormone, was discovered in 1906 by Sir Henry Dale. This hormone is released in quite large amounts during childbirth, allowing the uterus to contract and milk to eject during breastfeeding. This hormone is also responsible for the regulation of social behaviors like the interaction with others and bonding with our loved ones, both of which are critical for reproduction and caring for our children. The release of oxytocin helps mothers bond with their children due to an evolutionary sense, which allows humans to survive. Oxytocin is also referred to as “love molecule” due to its role in reproductive and maternal behaviors.
The Biology of Love
Social bonding is critical for our survival for two reasons. First, because it helps enrich our experiences and second, as it helps facilitate reproduction and boost brain development by reducing stress and anxiety. In terms of evolution, group exclusion leads to developmental and physical disorders, which in turn increased the risk of death in animal models.
In other words, humans are meant to be social and social isolation is not a well-programmed concept for us. Oxytocin levels are linked with trust as well, a behavior needed for social bonding and building emotional relationships.
The Mother-Infant Bond
When it comes to mother-infant bonding, healthy bonding releases oxytocin, which affects positive social behaviors. Actions like hugging, breastfeeding, and mother`s milk can induce the release of this hormone in both the mother and the baby, stimulating the bonding between the two.
Abnormal bonding, like lack of hugging, might negatively influence the child`s confidence and ability to interact with others as social factors heavily depend on body`s oxytocin levels. For instance, stressful events during pregnancy might be linked with behavioral deficits in later adulthood. Multiple rats done on mice have shown that when prenatally stressed mothers were paired with offspring, an increase of anxiety was noted.
After the child is born
After the child is born, positive social experience and maternal bonding is the basis for healthy emotional and social development and is linked with increased resilience during stress. Oxytocin levels in mother and fathers of 4-month children were associated with child`s level of bonding with their parents and higher oxytocin levels in mother were linked with increased mother-infant bonding. Bonding with one`s child through hugging increases oxytocin levels in the body, which in turn helps develop a healthier relationship between the child and the parent, reduces stress and lowers the risk of social deficits later on.
The bottom line is that each time you hug your spouse, child, or any loved one, you are not showing them affection only, but you are also boosting their oxytocin levels and improving their overall mental health.
Numan M, Young LJ. Neural mechanisms of mother-infant bonding and pair bonding: Similarities, differences, and broader implications. Horm Behav. 2016;77:98–112.