Giving dads a hit of oxytocin could make them bond better with their babies, a new study suggests. Researchers found that sniffing a dose of the hormone gets fathers more engaged while playing with their infants, and their children are more responsive in return.
In the study, researchers watched 35 fathers interact with their five-month-old infants, once after the dads were given oxytocin via nasal spray and once after they received a placebo. The scientists measured oxytocin levels for both father and child and they took note of actions associated with social attachment, like gaze and touch, during face-to-face play.
"We found that after oxytocin administration, fathers' salivary oxytocin rose dramatically, more than 10 fold, but moreover, similar increases were found in the infants' oxytocin," study researcher Ruth Feldman, of Bar-Ilan University in Israel, said in a statement. "In the oxytocin conditions, key parenting behavior, including father touch and social reciprocity, increased but infant social behavior, including social gaze and exploratory behavior, increased as well."
Many studies have looked at how oxytocin assists social bonding, and it's been shown to play a role in strengthening the connection between mother and child, which is perhaps unsurprising since women get a burst of the hormone during birth and breastfeeding. Feldman led a 2010 study that found fathers get a boost of the hormone, too, when bonding with their babies. However, high oxytocin levels in fathers were more often triggered by stimulatory parenting, such as tossing their baby in the air, while levels of the hormone in moms tended to correspond with affectionate actions such as soft hugs, caresses and baby talk, the researcher found.
While the new study might suggest oxytocin could promote paternal engagement in families where this is a problem, scientists warn that the complex chemical is not an unconditional "love drug," as it is sometimes called. Oxytocin has a variety of effects on behavior, and not all of them are positive. For example, it can increase trust among strangers, intensify negative memories and even enhance ethnocentrism, making you more likely to reject people you perceive as outsiders, studies have shown.
The research was detailed in the current issue of the journal Biological Psychiatry.