Hormonal Correlates of Parenting


An intriguing and relatively recent part of parenting science is related to the hormonal correlates of parenting. We studied associations between basal levels of oxytocin and various aspects of parenting, and we conducted a series of experimental studies on the behavioral and neural effects of intranasally administered oxytocin. Addressing doubts about whether intranasally administered oxytocin actually enters the human brain, our lab was the first to show that oxytocin changes resting state functional connectivity between the posterior cingulate cortex (PCC) and the brainstem, and between the PCC, the cerebellum, and the postcentral gyrus, areas in the brain involved in self-referential processes and understanding others’ mental states. Moreover, we showed in the first randomized trial of its type that fathers become more sensitive in playful interactions with their toddler after intranasal administration of oxytocin. Following this line of research on the neurobiology of parenting, we examined the underlying mechanisms of adults’ intended caregiving responses to cry sounds in an experimental design with adult twins. We found that experimentally manipulated oxytocin levels decreased amygdala activity in response to infant cry sounds, and increased activation in the insula and inferior frontal gyrus pars triangularis, thus reducing activation in the neural circuitry for anxiety and aversion, and increasing activation in regions involved in empathy. Moreover, oxytocin seems to increase the reward value of infant laughter. The effects of oxytocin administration may however be moderated by early childhood experiences (Translational Psychiatry, 2013). In concert with other hormones and neurotransmitters, oxytocin might play a key role in sensitive parenting and the development of attachment.

Hormones and fathers

In a recently started project funded by an ERC Advanced Grant we focus on the hormonal, neural, and behavioral dynamics of fathering through hormonal and behavioral experimental interventions. The aim of the project is to test the hypothesis that fathers’ parenting can be changed by behavioral interventions and that hormonal processes mediate this change – a rather bold hypothesis. Parenting intervention studies hardly ever examine the effects of interventions on parents’ hormonal levels. We hope to bridge this gap with a series of randomized controlled trials (RCT) focusing on a critical phase of parenthood: the transition to having the first baby. Drawing firm conclusions about the neural and hormonal basis of human parenting is critically dependent on RCTs, and we will conduct two types of experiments: (1) within-subject trials, using nasal administration of oxytocin, vasopressin, and a placebo, and (2) between-subject trials, using behavioral interventions aimed at promoting sensitive parenting and physical contact, and examining changes in hormonal levels as potential mechanism. Testing the efficacy of the behavioral experiments in boosting fathers’ protective parenting and participation in caregiving activities will contribute to the practice and support of fathering, with potentially crucial significance for fathers, mothers, children, and society. Examining the hormonal and neural mechanisms is also essential for the development of theory on the interplay between neuroscience and parenting.

Central papers:

  • Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J., & Van IJzendoorn, M.H. (2017). Protective Parenting: Neurobiological and behavioral dimensions. Current Opinion in Psychology, 15, 45-49. DOI: 10.1016/j.copsyc.2017.02.001
  • Feldman, R. & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (2017). Oxytocin: a parenting hormone. Current Opinion in Psychology  15:13–18
  • Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J., Van IJzendoorn, M.H., (2013). Sniffing around oxytocin: review and meta-analyses of trials in healthy and clinical groups with implications for pharmacotherapy. Translational Psychiatry, 3 e258. DOI:10.1038/tp.2013.34
  • Riem, M.M.E., Voorthuis, A., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J., & Van IJzendoorn, M.H. (2014). Pity or peanuts? Oxytocin induces different neural responses to the same infant crying labeled as sick or bored. Developmental Science, 17, 248-256. DOI: 10.1111/desc12103.
  • Riem, M.M.E, Van IJzendoorn, M.H., Tops, M., Boksem, M.A.S., Rombouts S.A.R.B., & Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (2012). No laughing matter: Intranasal oxytocin administration changes functional brain connectivity during exposure to infant laughter. Neuropsychopharmacology, 37, 1257–1266. DOI:10.1038/npp.2011.313
  • Naber, F.B.A., Van IJzendoorn, M.H., Deschamps, P., Van Engeland, H., Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (2010). Intranasal oxytocin increases fathers’ observed responsiveness during play with their children: a double-blind within-subject experiment. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35, 1583-1586. DOI: 10.1016/j.psyneuen.2010.04.007