Oxytocin is a hormone that plays an important role in the formation of inter-personal bonds. Studies have shown that intranasal administration of oxytocin increases trust, empathy, and social reciprocity.
In a study led by Dr Ruth Feldman from Bar-Ilan University in Israel and published in Biological Psychiatry, the researchers examined whether giving oxytocin to the parent enhances physiological and behavioural bonds with their infant and improves their parenting. They also studied whether the baby reacted favourably to these oxytocin-enhanced behaviours in the parent.
Two repeated observations of 35 fathers and their five-month-old infants were made–once after oxytocin administration and once after placebo administration. The fathers received the nasal sprays in a solitary room while their infant was cared for in another room. After 40 minutes, fathers and infants were reunited and engaged in a face-to-face play that was micro-coded for parent and child’s social behaviour. Salivary oxytocin levels were measured from the fathers and infants both before and several times after the drug administration.
“We found that after oxytocin administration, fathers’ salivary oxytocin soared dramatically, more than 10 fold, but moreover, similar increases were found in the infants’ oxytocin. In the oxytocin conditions, not only the key parenting behaviour, including father touch and social reciprocity increased but also infant social behaviour, including social gaze and exploratory behavior, increased,” explained Feldman.
“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.”
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.