Research Overview - Neuro-Endocrinology of Mother-Child Interaction

Pregnancy, labour and suckling stimulate and alter the morphology of oxytocinergic neurons. These neurons project to various areas within the mother’s brain distributing oxytocin and influencing maternal physiology, endocrinology and behaviour. Oxytocin mediates many mechanisms of the mother and infant’s physiology. Some which were discussed included the ejection of milk which transfers warmth and calmness to the infant, lactation which transfers nutrients from maternal stores to the milk, vagal stimulation from suckling releases GI hormones promoting digestion and anabolic metabolism in the mother and a reduction in the mother’s cortisol and blood pressure. This may suggest it creates an anti-stress effect and inhibits the sympatho-adrenal system.

The effect of suckling and its influence on the baby was also discussed. Interestingly, the author reviewed a paper which revealed that the non-nutritive sucking enhances growth rate in premature infants without caloric intake and shortens hospital stay. Also, sucking a pacifier was discussed to reduce movement and exert a sedative effect on the infant. Sucking also releases GI hormones which may contribute to the infant’s growth and development. Suckling allows for the interaction between mother and infant via skin-to-skin contact, olfactory, visual and auditory signals.

The author discussed several studies assessing this contact in rats and there was an interesting revelation whereby rat pups, when separated from their mothers became distressed, cortisol levels elevated and growth hormone levels decreased. These changes were reversed by tactile stimulation. This may suggest that cutaneous stimulation reduces sympatho-adrenal activity. A study reviewed reflected on the supplementary sensory stimulation in premature infants and its enhancement with their weight gain and their physiological and behavioural maturation. These changes can be attributed to the neuro-endocrine effects of stimulation of the somatosensory afferents. The changes in hormonal levels during breastfeeding was said to influence maternal behaviour. Estrogen, progesterone, FSH and LH decrease and prolactin increases through breastfeeding. This may potentially create a decrease in the interest of sexual activity and social desirability.

Newborn children need tactile, kinaesthetic, vestibular and proprioceptive stimulation to grow and develop physiologically and psychologically. Receiving a normal mother-infant interaction provides this stimulation. This stimulation also influences hormonal changes in both the infant and mother. As practitioners our best recommendation is to advise on parent-infant time.
Moberg-Uvnas, K. (1996). Neuroendrocrinology of the mother child interaction. Tends in Endocrinology and Metabolism. 7(4), 126-31.  

The Effects of Baby Massage on Attachment between Mother and their Infants


This quasi-experimental study examined the effect of baby massage on attachment between mother and their newborns. The researches hypothesized that baby massage strengthens the attachment between mother and baby. Mothers were divided into a control and an experimental group. All were primipara mothers who had a vaginal delivery and were breastfeeding. The Maternal Attachment Inventory (MAI) scale was used to directly measure maternal affectionate attachment pre and post-test. The experimental group were given hands on baby massage training, were provided with a CD format displaying baby massage at the first home visit and had their techniques evaluated a part of the way through the experiment. Massage was provided for 15 minutes each day for 38 days. The techniques used included effleurage and petrissage to the baby’s face, neck, shoulders, arms, check, back waist and legs. Additional to this was slow pressure application to the shoulders, neck face and lower back.  Results revealed that maternal attachment of the group applying massage was statistically significant. There was no significant difference between the two group’s pre-test MAI score; however the post-test scores in the experimental group were statistically higher than the value of the control group. There was also a slight increase in the post-test MAI score of the mothers in the control group. The authors noted that the relative youth of the mothers and how they were undertaking primary care of their first baby increased compliance with the study. This may also explain the small increase in maternal attachment behaviour of the mothers in the control group. Baby massage is a simple, inexpensive and effective technique which supports infant development. As practitioners recommending such technique to help strengthen mother-infant bond would be highly regarded.

Gurol, A., & Polat, Sevinc. (2012). The effects of baby massage on attachment between mother and their infants. Asian Nursing Research. 6(1), 35-41. doi: 10.1016/j.anr.2012.02.006
Written by, Carla Vescio BHSci (Chiro) MClinChiro