Women with troubled maternal relationships have lower levels of the hormone oxytocin and are more likely to experience difficulty bonding with their own babies, a UNSW study has found.
The research suggests that trust pathways are set in infancy and the quality of mother-and-child bonding repeats itself down the generations.
Blood samples were taken from 680 women receiving antenatal care at Liverpool Hospital and tested for oxytocin, a hormone that promotes trust and bonding.
They also filled out questionnaires on their own attachments and the quality of their relationship with their parents.
Fifty women who had high-level separation anxiety and 50 women who had no such symptoms were followed up two months after the babies were born, measured again for oxytocin and questioned about the relationships they had formed with their newborns.
Those women with lower oxytocin levels were more likely to report negative feelings, including resentment towards their babies, separation anxiety and depression.
Infant, child and adolescent psychiatry professor Valsamma Eapen said people’s experiences in their formative years wired the way they would respond to the hormone in later life.
People who had lots of positive experiences in their early years were more sensitive to the cues that would stimulate their oxytocin sensors, but women who had lower levels of oxytocin were starting from a disadvantaged position when it came to bonding with their babies.
“We found that these mums had insecure attachments,” Professor Eapen said.
“They didn’t have a secure relationship with their mums and we’re finding that they’re also having difficulties with their babies.
“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.”
Separation anxiety has long been recognised as an early childhood affliction, but was only recognised as an adult disorder for the first time last year.
The next stage of the UNSW study, which was done in partnership with Karitane and has been published in PLOS ONE, is testing whether the babies – now toddlers – have formed secure attachments with their mothers.
Professor Eapen said the results would help health professionals to identify women at risk and break the cycle.
Neha Mascarenhas, whose daughter Kiara was born in February last year, said she had a strong relationship with her parents and fell in love with her baby at first sight.
“Everyone said, ‘It’s a boy’,” Ms Mascarenhas said. “When this girl was born she was such a miracle for me, the bond was very strong between us.”
This article first appeared on ‘Sydney Morning Herald’ on 2 October 2014.