Mommies, Babies, and Chemistry

August 5, 2009 by MommyGirl  
Filed under Breastfeeding

A few years ago I came across this fascinating article about The Chemistry of Attachment by Linda F. Palmer. My mother was asking me more about Reactive Attachment Disorder, and this article touches on the oxytocin/cortisol impact on infant brain development. The wonderful way God has designed mothers and babies continually amazes me.

Here are some quotes from the article, of the creative chemicals that connect us.


Under the early influence of oxytocin, nerve junctions in certain areas of mother’s brain actually undergo reorganization, thereby making her maternal behaviors “hard-wired.”

Persistent regular body contact and other nurturing acts by parents produce a constant, elevated level of oxytocin in the infant, which in turn provides a valuable reduction in the infant’s stress-hormone responses. . . the resulting high or low level of oxytocin will control the permanent organization of the stress-handling portion of the baby’s brain-promoting lasting “securely attached” or “insecure” characteristics in the adolescent and adult.

When an infant does not receive regular oxytocin-producing responsive care, the resultant stress responses cause elevated levels of the stress hormone cortisol. Chronic cortisol elevations in infants . . .are shown in biochemical studies to be associated with permanent brain changes that lead to elevated responses to stress throughout life,


Released in response to nearness and touch, vasopressin promotes bonding between the father and the mother, helps the father recognize and bond to his baby. . . It has gained a reputation as the “monogamy hormone.”


. . .prolactin is released in response to suckling, promoting milk production as well as maternal behaviors. Prolactin relaxes mother. . . so she has no strong desire to hop up and do other things.


Babies need milk, and opioids are nature’s reward to them for obtaining it. . . The first few episodes of sucking organize nerve pathways in the newborn’s brain, conditioning her to continue this activity.

Prolonged elevation of prolactin in the attached parent stimulates the opioid system, heightening the rewards for intimate, loving family relationships. . .

Once a strong opioid bonding has occurred, separation can become emotionally upsetting, and in the infant possibly even physically uncomfortable when opioid levels decrease in the brain, much like the withdrawal symptoms from cocaine or heroin. When opioid levels become low, one might feel like going home to hold the baby or like crying for a parent’s warm embrace. . .


Norepinephrine helps organize the infant’s stress control system


Newborns are much more sensitive to pheromones than adults. . . . Through these, baby most likely learns how to perceive the level of stress in the caretakers around her, such as when mother is experiencing fear or joy. . . .body odors and pheromones can only be sensed when people are physically very near each other.