Where the Science of Psychology Meets the Art of Being Human

Oxytocin – What, Why, and How the Brain Changes During Pregnancy (by Megan Connolly)


Oxytocin - What, Why, and How the Brain Changes During Pregnancy

So what exactly is Motherhood anyway? Wouldn’t it be nice to have a tidy definition of the role you are currently about to embark upon that will forever be a part of your life?

We’re going to skip philosophising and get straight to the nitty gritty: If there’s an aspect of Motherhood that is important to get right, your brain and body will have equipped you for it. The rest are probably details.

As the research suggests, your brain appears to understand precisely what will be necessary to get you and baby through the challenges of parenting. So much so that it spends the pregnancy laying the groundwork for these tasks. And while it is of course very interesting to learn about these changes for their own sake, it is what these changes make possible that can arguably tell us a great deal about what needs to happen in order to help a child survive and grow.

Scientists have often wondered whether the profound change a new Mother experiences in her new role has any neurobiological basis. In other words, can the almost universal shift in a new Mother from “I” to “we”, and all the newness this brings, be explained by developments in the brain during pregnancy?

The emerging answer appears to be yes. And it might just begin with bonding…

In the same way that your body is preparing itself for energy storage and lactation in order to help you feed the baby when it arrives, the brain is now gearing up for all of the tasks it must coordinate to make mothering possible from a thinking and feeling point of view. You might wonder what kind of a Mother you should be – but it may be some comfort to know your brain is busy helping you become the Mother it thinks you need to be.

As a Mother you are now a twisted tangle of love. Your well-being is now forever entwined with that of another. Your bond with your child will leave you both infinitely richer and more vulnerable to heartache. There is nothing halfway about this love. It shakes you, it thrills you and it holds you, for better or for worse. And..that’s right.. it’s just the way your brain designed it.  

The brain both processes information and creates your lived experiences through a rich network of cells that speak to one another through miles and miles of connections. Certain regions and connections within the brain have been studied enough to allow scientists to pinpoint the specific brain chemicals they produce, and the specific experiences these brain chemicals create for us.

As it turns out, even this vast, unfathomably deep blue sea of love we have for our children has a probable origin in our brains.  And that origin is very likely oxytocin.

Oxytocin is our own, home-grown love potion. Technically speaking, it is a neuropeptide hormone that works in both your brain and your body, and appears to responsible for all things bonding related. Practically speaking, it’s responsible for giving us the warm fuzzies when we see someone we love. Researchers know this because they have been able to examine what happens to the behavior of animals when oxytocin is introduced (or blocked) in their systems. Introduce it, and animals will engage in all manner of bonding behavior. Block it, and animals can resist caring for even their own offspring.

Oxytocin is primarily released through touch. When oxytocin floods our brains and veins it signals us to move closer to those in our focus. It primes us for approach. Oxytocin asks us to slow down and get to know the person in our gaze. With oxytocin, we are more likely to trust. We move away from guarded “I” and flirt with the more vulnerable but rewarding “we”.  The oxytocin-response is the polar opposite of the stress response. It helps us to relax and to build connections with those we love.   

Oxytocin has been linked to Motherhood for a while. Researchers have long noted its link to the letdown of milk and the pacing of birth. Yet it’s only recently that information has started to be gathered on just how central oxytocin is to the maternal experience.

During pregnancy, the levels of oxytocin in a woman’s body rise steadily, priming her for bonding with her infant. In animal research, as delivery approaches, the MPOA region of the hypothalamus ( a region already rich in oxytocin receptors) notably increases the size of its cell bodies, making the region increasingly capable of oxytocin production. This extra-oxytocin-enriched region then goes on to liaise with the dopamine-producing (reward) regions of the brain, making all of this bonding behavior extra rewarding.

Put plainly, one of the major changes your brain goes through in pregnancy is the laying of the groundwork for an increased sensitivity to (and pleasure taken from) bonding. From a neuropsychological perspective, bonding – on repeat –  is very likely job one of Motherhood. Babies can’t explain what they need. So our brains direct us to keep them close to help figure it out. We could perceive these new arrivals to our world as strangers. We could ignore their entreats for warmth and nourishment with cold indifference. But we don’t. We fall in love with them at first site. And our oxytocin-soaked brains very likely manoeuvre the entire operation.   

Of course, given the many ways the brain can produce Oxytocin, pregnancy is not the only route to bonding with a new baby. Oxytocin is in ample supply during both delivery and breastfeeding. Yet it also comes from simple touch. From holding a gaze with someone you love. From meeting the needs of that person and having feelings of compassion for them. All opportunities in high supply during the early moments of caring for a new arrival. Whether you physically carried your baby or not, early parenthood is brimming with opportunities for genuine, caring connection – and these are the landmarks of oxytocin country.

As we continue to study the brain, one central premise has become clear: It is a model of efficiency. To keep you moving and interacting with the world, your brain has to accomplish a lot in very, very little time. It is unlikely the brain would spend precious resources increasing its oxytocin receptivity during pregnancy if the activities oxytocin supported during early parenthood weren’t crucial.

What this change in the brain suggests is that somewhere in our history, the more we bonded with our babies, and with those around us, the more babies we were able to help survive. This premise is subtle yet profound. Bonding with others is so important to parenthood that our very brains – the core of the fabric of what we know ourselves to be – re-wire in preparation for it.

Wondering how to be the best parent you can be? Take a cue from your oxytocin-revved brain. Slow down. Cuddle your newborn. Engage with her through acts of love and compassion. Trust in the process. On repeat.

Neuroscientifically  speaking  – a big part of parenthood just might be that simple.

Supporting academic papers.

Feldman, R., Gordon, I., Schneiderman, I., Weisman, O., & Zagoory-Sharon, O. (2010) Natural variations in maternal and paternal care are associated with systematic changes in oxytocin following parent-infant contact. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(8) 1133–1141.

Gordon, I., Zagoory-Sharon, O., Leckman, J. F., & Feldman, R. (2010). Oxytocin and the development of parenting in humans. Biological Psychiatry, 68(4), 377–382

Keyser-Marcus, L., Stasso-Sandoz, G., Gerecke, K., Jasnow, A., Nightingale, L., Lambert, K. G., . . . Kinsley, C. H. (2001). Alterations of medial preoptic area neurons following pregnancy and pregnancy-like steroidal treatment in the rat. Brain Research Bulletin, 55(6), 737–745

Kim, S. & Strathearn, L. (2016). Oxytocin and maternal brain plasticity. In H. J. V. Rutherford -& L. C. Mayes (Eds.), Maternal brain plasticity: Preclinical and human research and implications for intervention. New Directions for Child and Adolescent Development, 153, 59–72.

Kim, S., Fonagy, P., Koos, O., Dorsett, K., & Strathearn, L. (2014). Maternal oxytocin response predicts mother-to-infant gaze. Brain Research, 1580, 133–142.

Kendrick, K. M., Keverne, E. B., & Baldwin, B. A. (1987). Intracerebroventricular oxytocin stimulates maternal behaviour in the sheep. Neuroendocrinology, 46(1), 56–61

Pedersen, C. A., Ascher, J. A., Monroe, Y. L., & Prange, A. J., Jr. (1982). Oxytocin induces maternal behavior in virgin female rats. Science, 216(4546), 648–650.

Pedersen, C. A., Caldwell, J. D., Walker, C., Ayers, G., & Mason, G. A. (1994). Oxytocin activates the postpartum onset of rat maternal behavior in the ventral tegmental and medial preoptic areas. Behavioral Neuroscience, 108(6), 1163–1171.

Stolzenberg, D. S., & Numan, M. (2011). Hypothalamic interaction with the mesolimbic DA system in the control of the maternal and sexual behaviors in rats. Neuroscience and Biobehavioral Reviews, 35(3), 826–847.

About the Author: Megan Connolly

Megan Connolly holds an MSc. in Applied Positive Psychology and an M.A in Industrial/Organisational Psychology. Her research led to Co-Founding Well Made Mama along with Sabrina Scalfari, a website devoted to helping women explore the way the science of human behaviour can help a modern mother adapt to her new role. Well Made Mama believes that child care begins with mother care, and that the health of the world begins with the health of its mothers. Find out more on wellmademama.co, Instagram, or Facebook.

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Anxiety starts with a physiological response desig Anxiety starts with a physiological response designed to get the body ready for action - to fight or to flee. This physiology feels so awful (because it’s meant to) that it drives anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviour (fight or flight). 
Movement helps to discharge the fight or flight energy. This helps to bring the physiology back to calm, which can in turn help to bring anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviour back to calm enough.

Anxiety starts with a physiological response designed to get the body ready for action - to fight or to flee. This physiology feels so awful (because it’s meant to) that it drives anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviour (fight or flight).
Movement helps to discharge the fight or flight energy. This helps to bring the physiology back to calm, which can in turn help to bring anxious thoughts, feelings and behaviour back to calm enough.