Ages & Stages > Pregnancy & Birth

Activate Your Hormones to Become a Better Mother -- and a Happier Person!

Why are some women better mothers than others?  Turns out that some women have more “love” hormones than others.  Photo: Christine GillOxytocin is one of the key maternal hormones, but it doesn’t just make women more maternal, it makes them more loving in general -- and happier!

Scientists have known for decades that animals with less oxytocin exhibit slower pup retrieval and less licking and grooming of their babes, but not much research has been done on human mothering and oxytocin until now.

The latest results are fascinating.  Researchers have found that women’s oxytocin levels during their first trimester of pregnancy predict their bonding behavior with their babies during the first month after birth.  Additionally, mothers who had higher levels of oxytocin across the pregnancy as well as the postpartum month also reported more behaviors that create a close relationship, such as singing a special song to their baby, bathing and feeding them in a special way, or thinking about them more. Quite simply, the more oxytocin you have, the more loving and attentive you are to your baby. 

What's more, oxytocin reverses the effect of the fight or flight hormones once danger is past, and helps us restore our sense of calm and well-being. It lowers blood pressure and promotes friendliness, or the desire to connect with others.  In general, oxytocin makes you happier.

Here's the obvious question.  If you don't have high oxytocin levels in your first trimester, are you just fated to be a lousy parent, and your kids are out of luck?   Or are there ways for us to increase our oxytocin levels?

Let's start with the bad news. We can't just take oxytocin pills to increase blood levels because oxytocin doesn’t cross the body’s “blood/brain barrier,” except in the form of nasal sprays, and long-term use of oxytocin spray can damage your brain. So there's no magic pill.  We have to do the work to increase our oxytocin.

But the good news is that our brain's production of oxytocin is actually easily impacted. 
And it isn't just limited to moms.  Men have oxytocin too, and in almost the same amounts as women, although few studies have been conducted on men's oxytocin pathways.

The happy fact is that we can all raise our oxytocin levels, every day!  The methods are simple, and enjoyable.  Some activities that will help you produce more oxytocin: Touching another person, loving your baby, loving a pet, connecting deeply with another human being, yoga, exercise, giving or receiving a massage, meditation, worshiping, participating in a group that you enjoy, engaging in loving sex, singing, dancing, gardening, volunteering, snuggling your child….  

You could probably add to this list with your own favorite, replenishing activities.  Highest on the list would be loving connections with intimate others, from partners to children to friends.  Quite simply, we produce oxytocin when we feel love. IN fact, some researchers call it the love hormone.

And for pregnant women who wonder about their oxytocin levels: the single best way to increase your oxytocin is to breastfeed your baby.  Not only do your blood levels increase, but your body makes more receptors, permanently increasing your feelings of love -- and your ability to feel loved.   

Because the even better news is that the more oxytocin we produce, the more oxytocin receptors our nervous system produces! 
That means that the more oxytocin we produce, the more receptors we produce, and the more love we feel.  It's an upward spiral.  As the Beatles said, the love you take is equal to the love you make.

"Various spiritual teachings say that there are only two fundamental emotions: love and fear. For the body, this is true. All mammals, including humans, have two opposing hormonal responses to stimuli. Threatening stimuli cause an increase of stress hormones—adrenaline and cortisol. Soothing or reassuring stimuli cause an increase in oxytocin."--Gary Wilson and Marnia Robinson

Recent findings demonstrating the power of oxytocin (Copyright © 2006 Entelechy: Mind & Culture)

  • Oxytocin reduces fear. Increased levels of oxytocin inhibit the fight or flight response in the brain. (Huber, 2005)
  • Oxytocin speeds healing. Wounded hamsters heal twice as fast when they are paired with a sibling, rather than left in isolation (DeVries, 2004).
  • Oxytocin counters cravings for sweets. (Billings, 2006).
  • Oxytocin reduces antisocial behavior. The administration of oxytocin normalized social behaviors in animals exhibiting schizophrenia. (Lee, 2005)
  • Oxytocin promotes healthy social behavior. Administration of oxytocin reduces symptoms of autism. (Hollander, 2003)
  • Oxytocin reduces cravings. When scientists administered it to rodents who were addicted to cocaine, morphine, or heroin, the rats opted for less drugs, or showed fewer symptoms of withdrawal. (Kovacs, 1998)
  • Oxytocin calms. A single rat injected with oxytocin has a calming effect on a cage full of anxious rats. (Agren, 2002)
  • Oxytocin levels were higher in both men and women who reported greater partner support. (Grewen, 2005)
  • Oxytocin appears be a major reason that SSRI’s ease depression, perhaps because high levels of cortisol are the chief culprits in depression and anxiety disorders. (Uvnas-Moberg, 1999)
  • Oxytocin increases sexual receptivity and counteracts impotence , which may explain why this other way of making love remains pleasurable. (Pedersen, C.A., 2002), (Arletti, 1997)
  • Oxytocin counteracts the effects of cortisol, the stress hormone. Increased levels of oxytocin in the brain decrease levels of blood cortisol. (Legros, 2003)
  • Oxytocin may increase longevity. Companionship can increase longevity—even among those who are HIV positive (Young, 2004). Oxytocin may also explain why, among various species of primates, care-giving parents (whether male or female) live significantly longer. (Cal Tech, 1998)


The studies referred to in the article are by:

Psychology professor Ruth Feldman, published in the November 2007 issue of Psychological Science, and

Kerstin Uväs-Moberg, M.D., Ph. D, author of The Oxytocin Factor