Taking care of a newborn baby is notoriously challenging. Sleep deprivation, a seemingly never-ending cycle of feeding, diaper changes and bouncing, all while recovering from birth. And yet, in the middle of the night you may find yourself gazing at your baby, captivated by their wrinkly face and chubby hands, and bewitched by their sweet smell. How are babies able to bring us to our knees even when we are physically and emotionally pushed to our absolute limits?
The answer is love. Nature is no dummy, it uses our own hormones to start the bonding process to ensure the ultimate success of the dyad. Sometimes that attachment feels immediate and sometimes it takes time for it to grow but behind it all is our favourite hormone, oxytocin.
How does oxytocin affect bonding?
Oxytocin is linked to bonding behaviours such as gazing, affectionate touch, positive affect and even using that soothing sing song-y baby voice that also comes out when we talk to cute animals. Research has shown that higher levels of oxytocin during pregnancy are predictive of these behaviours but also to feelings of attachment to your baby and the instinct to keep your baby close.
Oxytocin seems to make us more sensitive to the needs of our babies and helps shift our focus to their well-being. It lays the foundation for the behaviours that in turn bring us closer to our babies before they can even smile and giggle back at us. Oxytocin is also associated in adoptive parents’ expressions of caregiving behaviour and feelings of delight which is not a surprise given that we know pregnancy and birth are not a prerequisite for love and bonding.
Why is bonding important?
Bonding is important for a parent’s mental well-being and it eases our transition into parenthood. If we want to think about the bigger evolutionary picture, this is what has kept our species going for thousands of years. The parent-infant synchrony that is facilitated by oxytocin is beneficial to babies too because it helps them get the things they need for optimal development: protection, warmth and food.
What role does oxytocin play in breastfeeding?
We learned in Part 1 that oxytocin is responsible for making the uterus contract. In fact, the love hormone causes muscle cells to contract in other contexts, such as orgasm and breastfeeding, but the name “contractility hormone” isn’t very catchy.
At the beginning of a feed, the baby uses fast sucking motions to trigger the release of oxytocin which causes muscle cells to push the milk downwards towards the nipple in what is called the milk ejection reflex or let down. You can see and often hear this happen when a newborn switches from a fast sucking pattern to a slow one, pausing with their open mouth to let their mouth fill with milk before swallowing.
The rise of oxytocin during breastfeeding also has a calming effect and can decrease stress. Whether this is a secondary effect or not doesn’t really matter, we know that it’s good for new parents to get bursts of anti-anxiety oxytocin in those tumultuous first weeks and beyond.
How can I encourage oxytocin in the early days of parenting?
One of the best ways to boost oxytocin is skin to skin contact with your baby. This isn’t just a little bit of touching baby’s soft skin but rather a naked baby on your chest (diapered is generally preferred by parents!). Increasing oxytocin through skin to skin contact has countless benefits from soothing your baby to regulating their breathing and temperature to promoting bonding so soak up that goodness as often as you can. Eye contact with your baby and massage are other ways to increase oxytocin in both you and your baby.
As mentioned above, breastfeeding can have big implications on oxytocin levels, this seems to be nature’s way of setting up attachment. When it’s not possible or if you choose not to breastfeed, bottle feeding can also be done in a way to promote oxytocin with plenty of eye contact, skin touching and connecting with your baby.
It can be easy to let anxiety take hold during the postpartum period, but we can also use what we know about biology to counter it. Just as pregnancy demands that we slow down, so too do our babies and I think it’s all in the name of oxytocin. Pausing to look at your baby, to drink up that squishy face, to notice the subtleties in their changing eye colour or to smell their soft heads. Sighing to let the tensions out in your body after baby starts a feed and remembering to breathe. Importantly planning ahead by creating a support network will enable you to slow down without feeling overwhelmed.
How can a birth and/or postpartum doula help?
A doula can be an important part of your support network and can really help bring you back to the basics so that you can focus on bonding with your baby.
Immediately after birth we facilitate skin to skin contact and suggest ways to soak up this golden time even amid hospital protocols. Once you are at home, a postpartum doula supports your family by ensuring everyone is fed, rested and cared for. By easing the chaos around you we encourage oxytocin to flow. We can show you how to wear your baby to get the benefits of closeness along side the ability to eat with two hands.
We are there to talk through the expectations versus reality of parenting a newborn. Our goal is to remove a couple of things from your plate so that you can find your feet. It’s amazing what the disappearance of a laundry pile or a cleared sink can do for one’s ability to enjoy the time with your baby.
While we will happily hold or wear your baby so you can get rest or take a shower, we are not another person coming to cuddle your baby without paying you any attention. We are there for you so you can be there for your baby and we respect the bonding process.
Thanks oxytocin for all that you do! We honour this love hormone for making those middle of the night wake ups more tolerable, for giving us a chance to sink into love, and for sweetening the interactions we have with our new babies before they have learned to coo and smile back.