May 11, 2011 -- Pregnant women who have lower levels of the hormone oxytocin may be at greater risk for developing postpartum depression, a new study shows.
Sometimes called the “cuddle hormone” or the “hormone of love,” oxytocin has been the subject of much research interest for its ability to foster feelings of bonding and attachment.
Previous studies have also suggested that oxytocin is important in parenting behaviors.
New fathers who are given a whiff of oxytocin nasal spray, for example, are more likely to encourage their children to explore during playtime and are less likely to be hostile, compared to fathers given a placebo.
Mothers with higher oxytocin levels are more likely to coo to their babies in a playful, squeaky voice, a kind of speech scientists call “motherese.” They also tend to smile more at their infants and are more apt to respond to changes in the baby’s mood with positive, loving touches or happy facial expressions than mothers with lower oxytocin levels, says James F. Leckman, MD, the Neison Harris Professor in the Child Study Center at Yale University in New Haven, Conn.
But the new study is one of the first to explore the relationship between oxytocin levels during pregnancy and the risk for postpartum depression, a condition that affects as many as one in five women.
“I think this particular finding needs to be replicated,” says Leckman, who was not involved in the study. But if it is, a test for oxytocin may one day help to identify mothers at risk for depression after the birth of a baby.
Researchers at the University of Basel, Switzerland, measured oxytocin levels in 73 healthy pregnant women. Sixteen reported previous episodes of major depression that had ended at least two years before they joined the study.
Blood samples to measure oxytocin were taken during the third trimester of pregnancy.
The women were given written screening tests to assess their risk of depression during pregnancy and again within two weeks of giving birth.