Several weeks ago, I was at a friend’s house while she was babysitting a newborn. This little one started to cry not long after her momma left. Try as she might, my friend couldn’t console that little baby. She wouldn’t take the bottle her mom had left either. Eventually, my friend turned to me and said, “Do you want to try?” So I took that little baby. Within moments, she was calm. Soon, I was able to get her to drink some of her bottle, and she fell asleep for a bit in my arms.
I don’t think my friend was doing anything “wrong,” and I don’t think I was doing anything “right.” But it was apparent that this little one could tell a difference between us. Knowing what I know now, I’d say she could smell and feel that difference. I’ve often heard and read that babies prefer the smell of lactating women to non-lactating women. I’m a lactating mother. I (or, more accurately, my boobs) smell good to babies. But I don’t think it was just the smell of my milk that calmed that little one.
Kerstin Uvnas-Moberg has been studying oxytocin longer than most. In her research, she discovered that injecting male rats with oxytocin would create a domino effect of sorts. The other rats in the cage could smell the increased oxytocin levels among their cage-mates and their own bodies responded by releasing more oxytocin. They also became more calm as a result. I’d say it is reasonable to assume that we, too, respond to the oxytocin levels of the people around us.
I don’t doubt that the little baby I consoled could smell/sense my hightened oxytocin levels. It’s likely that my body’s oxytocin prompted her own body to de-stress with a surge of oxytocin. With her mind and body soothed, she was able to eat in peace.
I’m also reminded of a blogpost I wrote after my doula training in February of ’09. I explained:
The people surrounding the laboring woman can enter into a kind of “zone” in which their bodies start producing hormones in response to the laboring woman’s hormones. A woman in labor is radiating oxytocin like nothing else. And I think the people around her–if in-tune with her through their consistent presence–will also experience a surge in their own oxytocin levels. It makes complete sense.
You hear birthworkers talk often about the “birth high,” and I think oxytocin has a lot to do with it.
Oxytocin has been called the “hormone of love,” so it’s totally fascinating (to me) to recognize that we can literally radiate love when we have high oxytocin levels. The people around us may even be able to smell our radiating love and will feel calm and peaceful in our presence! How cool is that? As I think about people in my life, I could probably accurately guess whose oxytocin levels are highest based on how I feel in their presence. There are people in my life who radiate stress and anxiety and people in my life who radiate calmness and love. My body responds to these people accordingly. And guess who I am most drawn to and eager to spend time with?
So what can we do to increase our oxytocin levels and thereby radiate love and peace? An excellent article called “Bonding Matters: The Chemistry of Attachment,” by Linda F. Palmer, DC, shares several important facts about maximizing oxytocin levels in mothers and babies:
- “Attempts at nursing during the initial hour after birth cause oxytocin to surge to exceptional levels in both mother and baby.”
- “Beyond birth, mother continues to produce elevated levels of oxytocin as a consequence of nursing and holding her infant, and the levels are based on the amount of such contact.”
- “Oxytocin levels are higher in mothers who exclusively breastfeed than in those who use supplementary bottles.”
- “Prolonged high oxytocin in mother, father, or baby also promotes lower blood pressure and reduced heart rate as well as certain kinds of artery repair, actually reducing lifelong risk of heart disease.”
- “Persistent regular body contact and other nurturing acts by parents produce a constant, elevated level of oxytocin in the infant, which in turn provides a valuable reduction in the infant’s stress-hormone responses.”
I think it’s probably safe to say that babywearing is one of the absolute best things you can do for your own and your baby’s oxytocin levels. As we remain close to our babies, nurturing and feeding them in our arms, our oxytocin levels remain high, bathing ourselves and everyone around us with that hormone of love and calmness. What a gift nurturing mothers are to the world!
Once our children have weaned, we can still keep our oxytocin levels high through being physically affectionate with our loved ones. Years ago, I also learned that sharing a meal with others may boost oxytocin levels, especially when you’re eating from the same pot or dish. I wish I could find the original source, but I definitely believe it. One of the most pleasurable eating experiences of my life was sitting around a table with a group of people I love, eating fondue from the communal pot in the middle of the table and laughing all night. I’d guess our oxytocin levels were off the charts that night.
Listening to good music and singing are also great ways to boost your oxytocin levels. In a blogpost about the neuroscience of singing, church music blog explains:
Singing, particularly singing with other people, causes the brain to produce unusually high levels of oxytocin. Just to double check, I found a study at the National Center for Biotechnology Information that lends credibility to this claim: when people sing together, their brains make oxytocin, and that makes them feel trust, solidarity, and connectedness with the people around them.
If you’ve ever sung in a choir, you know that incredible feeling that arises in the heart as voices harmonize and blend in unison. Oh I love that feeling. Oxytocin rocks.
All of this makes me want to hug more, cuddle more, breastfeed more, serve more, laugh more, and sing more. I want to be one of those people who radiates love at all times. I want to oooooze oxytocin. I want people to feel warm and happy in my presence. Maybe I’ll get there someday.