Oxytocin and parenting behavior among impoverished mothers with low vs. high early life stress

Abstract

Recent work suggests that key aspects of sensitive parenting (e.g., warmth, emotional attunement) may be shaped in part by biology, specifically the neuropeptide oxytocin. However, some studies have found that oxytocin may not act in expected ways in higher-risk populations (e.g., those with postnatal depression or borderline personality disorder). This study examined the relation between oxytocin and parenting among mothers with varying levels of early life stress. Forty low-income mothers and their 34- to 48-month-old child participated in this study. Mother-child dyads were observed in an interaction task in their home, and videos of these interactions were later coded for parenting behaviors. Mothers’ oxytocin production before and after the interaction task was assessed through saliva. Mothers’ early stress was assessed via the Adverse Childhood Experiences Scale (ACES; Felitti et al. Am J Prev Med 14:245–258, 1998). For mothers with low ACEs, higher oxytocin secretion was associated with more positive parenting. For mothers with high ACEs, higher oxytocin secretion was associated with lower levels of positive parenting. Oxytocin may be operating differently for mothers who experienced harsh early social environments, supporting more defensive behaviors and harsh parenting than anxiolytic and prosocial behaviors.

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Acknowledgements

The content of this article is solely the responsibility of the authors and does not necessarily represent the official views of the NIH. We thank the families for their participation in our research and to our research team at the University of Michigan for their assistance with data collection and coding.

Funding

This research was supported by Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development grants 1R01HD069179 (PIs JC Lumeng, AL Miller), T32 HD079350 (PI: JC Lumeng), F32HD088029 (PI: JR Doom), National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive Kidney Diseases grant T32 DK071212 (PI: DM Vazquez), and National Institutes of Health CTSA pilot grant UL1TR000433 (PI: AL Miller).

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Correspondence to Megan M. Julian.

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This study was approved by the [redacted for blind review] Institutional Review Board (protocol number [redacted for blind review]). Mothers provided written informed consent.

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The authors declare that they have no conflicts of interest.

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Julian, M.M., Rosenblum, K.L., Doom, J.R. et al. Oxytocin and parenting behavior among impoverished mothers with low vs. high early life stress. Arch Womens Ment Health 21, 375–382 (2018). https://doi.org/10.1007/s00737-017-0798-6

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Keywords

  • Parenting
  • Stress
  • Oxytocin
  • Parent-child interaction
  • Adverse childhood experiences