Very special chemistry behind mother’s instinct

Heather SAWREY and daugher LIFFY,
Heather SAWREY and daugher LIFFY,
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THE mother and baby bond, cuddles and kisses – the way a mother treats her baby goes a lot deeper than you’d think. As Mothering Sunday approaches, reporter Rachael Clegg finds out about the science behind motherhood.

HEATHER Sawrey took to mothering as if she’d been doing it for years.

Her daughter, Liffy, was born 16 months ago. Heather knew nothing about being a mum and, with Liffy being her first child, it was something Heather had never done before.

But that didn’t matter.

Because with Heather – as with so many other mothers – mothering was instinctive.

“Everything came really naturally – I remember the breastfeeding lady telling me I just ‘seemed to know what to do’.

Marysia Placzek, a professor in Developmental Neurobiology at the University of Sheffield

Marysia Placzek, a professor in Developmental Neurobiology at the University of Sheffield

“It was as if instinct took over, especially when it came to holding Liffy.

“When I held other people’s babies in the past I always felt like I was going to break something or damage them but when I had Liffy it was different – I just knew how to do it and not worry about it.

“I just feel I have this amazing bond.”

Heather also says she feels extremely protective of Liffy. “I just want to make sure that nothing ever happens to her – you’re always looking out for them.”

Mumba, a 22-year-old Western Lowland Gorilla, cradles her newborn. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Mumba, a 22-year-old Western Lowland Gorilla, cradles her newborn. Photo: Gareth Fuller/PA Wire

Heather’s discovery of her maternal instinct is, in fact, grounded in science.

The close bond, affection and intimacy a mother feels with her baby is thanks to a complex hormone called oxytocin, as Sheffield University’s Marysia Placzek – Professor in Developmental Neurobiology – explains.

“There is a biological basis for the way mothers are with their babies.

“Having a baby has a huge effect on your neurochemistry, especially on your levels of a hormone called oxytocin,” she says.

Oxytocin is a sophisticated hormone. It causes mothers to want to be in close proximity to their offspring and fine-tunes a mother’s ear to its offspring’s calls.

“In rodents such as rats it causes a mother to be much more sensitive and responsive to her young. In terms of behaviour oxytocin manifests itself – in rodents – with suckling, grooming and licking.”

And mother-infant bonding is universal to all mammalian species. “Lambs know the call of their young, very much in the same way that humans understand their baby’s cry and are able to distinguish between the type of call a baby makes.”

Oxytocin is also implicated in the ‘bond’ Heather talks about.

“It really is an absolutely fascinating hormone and helps create a very special bond between two individuals. The bond between a mother and baby is extremely strong.”

Studies of pregnant women shows there is a correlation between the level of oxytocin and the reported level of bond the mother’s felt with the foetus, even though it had not been born.

“The women who said they felt ‘strongly attached’ had higher levels of oxytocin,” says Prof Placzek.

Post birth, levels of oxytocin are raised enormously. But some scientists have been cautious about placing too much emphasis on biological factors such as the level of oxytocin in one’s brain.

Studies have also shown that oxytocin helps babies deal with stress in later life.

But behaviour can affect levels of oxytocin as well. “In a newborn baby social stimulation and a loving environment will help stimulate oxytocin in a baby. Later in a child’s life it needs that stimulation from its mother more than its mother needs the child.

“So if a teenager’s not talking – he or she still needs the mother to talk to them. It’s the reassurance that will then stimulate oxytocin,” says Prof Placzek.

But it’s not just the mother who can trigger a child’s oxytocin.

“Other people can feed into it as well. If the mother has been loving and other people show the child love then that too will indirectly achieve the same result – which is to stimulate oxytocin.”

The fact oxytocin is implicated in a child’s future stability, coping mechanisms and security explains why it is so crucial in the early stages of a mother and child bond.

The maternal instinct that Heather feels, the need to nurture and protect Liffy and the bond she experiences are all, in part, owing to oxytocin.

“In the classic literature it’s believed the first four years of a child’s life are crucial and the importance of a loving, socially stimulating environment is crucial,” says Prof Placzek

So, as Mothering Sunday approaches, she adds: “Mothers with teenagers may not realise that this weekend it will be more important for her teenage children to get in touch with her than for her to want to see them.”