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Poor Maternal Bonding Inherited

Trust pathways in the brain are set in infancy and passed on from mother to child, according to research published in PLOS ONE. The work links oxytocin levels in new mothers to disturbed bonding they had with their own mothers.

Oxytocin triggers a dopamine reward response in the brain that promotes newborn bonding as a pleasurable activity. In the baby, this bonding sets lifelong oxytocin release pathways that, if compromised, will affect the child’s own future attachment relationships.

Blood samples taken from women with troubled maternal relationships showed a clear deficit in oxytocin compared with those who reported close childhood ties with their mother. There was an obvious difference in oxytocin readings between the women 2 months after their babies were born.

“The immediate postpartum results show that what you experienced from parenting: these formative experiences are critical in wiring your response to the hormone,” says first author Prof Valsamma Eapen of The University of NSW. “So we see this dysfunctional or disrupted relating as an intergenerational cycle, and just increasing oxytocin levels with a puffer or spray alone won’t change that.”

Eapen believes the research could be a breakthrough in identifying at-risk mothers and helping them break the cycle. “What we are now developing is attachment-based cognitive behavioural therapy for mums to reframe their own perspectives and attitudes to fix problems that have been pre-programmed,” says Eapen, who anticipates that this type of therapy could be used either on its own or perhaps in combination with oxytocin.

The babies will be followed up through study partner organisation Karitane to examine the anxiety response in children at 1 year of age.