Fathers Are More Engaged Parents With Oxytocin
December 11, 2012

Fathers Are More Engaged Parents With Oxytocin

April Flowers for redOrbit.com - Your Universe Online

Oxytocin is a powerful hormone that plays a huge role in pair bonding. It is stimulated in numerous ways, including sex, birth, and breastfeeding. The ability of oxytocin to facilitate social bonding for human females in both marital and parenting relationships has been documented in a large body of previous research.

A new study from Bar-Ilan University reveals that oxytocin administrated to fathers increases their parental engagement, with parallel effects observed in the children as well.

Important in the formation of attachment bonds, oxytocin is a neuropeptide that has been shown to increase trust, empathy and social reciprocity when administered by intranasal methods. Neuropeptides are small protein-like molecules used to allow neurons to communicate with each other, influencing the activity of the brain.

Dr. Ruth Feldman and her colleagues, Omri Weisman and Orna Zagoory-Sharon, examined oxytocin administration effects on the parent, looking for whether this administration would enhance physiological and behavioral processes that support social engagement with their infant and improve parenting behaviors. The infants were also observed to see if oxytocin effects on the parental behavior would affect related physiological and behavioral processes in the infant.

The results of this study were published in the current issue of Biological Psychiatry.

The study group was thirty-five fathers and their five-month-old infants. They were observed twice, once after oxytocin administration and again after placebo administration. The nasal sprays were administered to the fathers in a solitary room while their infants were cared for in another room, then the parent and child were reunited 40 minutes after administration. The fathers and infants then engaged in face-to-face play. This play was microcoded for parent and child's social behavior. Both infant and father's salivary oxytocin levels were measured both before and several times after the drug was administered.

"We found that after oxytocin administration, fathers' salivary oxytocin rose dramatically, more than 10 fold, but moreover, similar increases were found in the infants' oxytocin. In the oxytocin conditions, key parenting behavior, including father touch and social reciprocity, increased but infant social behavior, including social gaze and exploratory behavior, increased as well," explained Feldman in a statement.

In both parent and child, respiratory sinus arrhythmia — a measure that indexes better autonomic readiness for social engagement — was higher as well.

"We should not be surprised that social bonding in male parents is affected by many of the same biological mechanisms that have been identified for females," commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry. "The question arising from this study is whether there is a way to harness the 'power' of oxytocin to promote paternal engagement with their infants in families where this is a problem."

Feldman concluded, "Such findings have salient implications for the potential treatment of young children at risk for social difficulties, including premature infants, siblings of children with autism, or children of depressed mothers, without the need to administer drug to a young infant."