What's Happening In The Brain When We Fall In Love With Our Babies

The relationship with our parents is the most meaningful experience. It has such a huge impact on how a baby develops and experiences the world. I was 22 when Estie, my oldest daughter, was born. She was placed on my chest, and I think at that moment I felt what it means to love. [Ruth Feldman, Director, Centre for Developmental Social Neuroscience, IDC Herzliya, Israel] 

Then, being a scientist, I wanted to understand what's happening in the brain when we fall in love with our babies. What is the biology of bonding? Back in the early '90s, we didn't have a full understanding of how the bonding between mother and baby develops. 

In my research, I came across several scientific papers that described the importance of the hormone oxytocin to bonding in mammals. And that really opened my eyes. So I wondered if oxytocin would be involved in the bonding I experienced with my own children.

In 2001, we started the first study to test the role of oxytocin in parent/infant bonding. This was a real adventure. We recruited about 80 mothers, and we traveled up and down the country to collect the samples throughout pregnancy, and in the first month after childbirth.

And what we found was that oxytocin levels in mothers rise during pregnancy, and they stay high throughout pregnancy and right after childbirth.

What we also realized, that when mother and infant touch each other a lot, the oxytocin levels in both go higher, and this makes you want to engage with the baby more. The brain gives the mother the sense of intense reward. So the higher the oxytocin the mother had, the more she bonded with her infant.

But I always knew that this is only half of the equation. I began to wonder what's going on with fathers.

For the next study, we wanted to see if there's an impact on the level of oxytocin in fathers. So we recruited 80 couples. And we measured oxytocin in fathers, in the first months, right after the child's birth.

And when we looked at the results, it was really shocking. Mothers' and fathers' level of oxytocin were identical. And that was a huge surprise.

We know for over a hundred years that mothers get a surge of oxytocin during pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing. But how do fathers get so much oxytocin?

We discovered that the more you do with a baby, and really lift your sleeves, and take care of the child, and wash it, and feed it, engage in a parental role, the more your oxytocin system will activate.

And this is amazing. Fatherhood is biological. It's as deep as motherhood.

We all know that when the baby cries at night, it's usually the mom that hears it. And maybe the dad will get up, change the baby, but it's the mother who is not able to sleep.

When we looked at mom's brain, we found that the oxytocin surge at birth activates a very primitive structure. The amygdala. This is the amygdala. You see it in both sides of the brain. It makes us vigilant. It makes us worry about the infant.

And once the mother's amygdala is open, it stays like this forever, no matter how old your child is. When we look at dad's brain, we saw quite a different story. It's about a quarter of what you see in mom's.

But not every family has a mother.

In 2010, we recruited a unique group of parents where there was no mother. We had 48 gay couples who were living in a partnered, committed relationship and had a child through surrogacy, and had the baby from the first day of life.

We videotaped in the home, the baby interacting with the parents, and we took it to the lab to code it. We also measured oxytocin levels. And we scanned father's brain. And when we analyzed the results, we were in for a big surprise.

When fathers are primary caregiver, they had amygdala activation just like mothers. We had no idea that we would find that. 

Pregnancy, childbirth, and nursing activate the maternal brain. But also, it's activated to the same extent by committed caregiving. So it doesn't really matter whether you are the biological parent or a committed caregiving parent. It's a choice. It's a choice to be a parent to that infant.

Source: Netflix.

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