Widely referred to as the “love” hormone, oxytocin is an indispensable part of childbirth and emotional mother-child bonding. Psychologists at Florida Atlantic University are conducting a novel study to determine how a mother’s levels of oxytocin might be different in women with depression. The goal of this study is to look at how breast feeding, oxytocin and face-to-face interactions between a mother and her baby are impacted by depression and the mother’s oxytocin levels.

“We already know that pregnancy escalates oxytocin levels and that breastfeeding releases oxytocin, which have anti-depressive effects,” said Nancy Aaron Jones, Ph.D., associate professor of psychology in FAU’s Charles E. Schmidt College of Science and director of the FAU WAVES Emotion Laboratory located on the John D. MacArthur Campus in Jupiter. “In this new study, we are looking at oxytocin levels in pre- and postpartum mothers who suffer from depression to see how they differ from mothers who don’t have depression. Another novel aspect of the study is that we also are examining the oxytocin levels of the infant once they are born and how these levels change across development.”

Higher oxytocin levels in mothers may indicate higher oxytocin levels in infants, which occurs during breast feeding and interactive touching.

“We are really trying to understand how these varying levels of oxytocin affect the mother-infant emotional relationship as well as the baby’s emotional development and their emotional bond with their mother,” said Jones.

New evidence shows that maternal mental illness is more common than previously thought and is estimated to occur in approximately 10 to 20 percent of new mothers. An independent panel of experts appointed by the U.S. Preventive Services Task Force recently recommended that women should be screened for depression during pregnancy and after giving birth.

Using a multi-pronged approach for the study, Jones and her lab team follow moms-to-be from pregnancy through the first six months after delivery. They use surveys that address depression, breast feeding and bonding, conduct home visits, and collect urine samples from mothers and their babies to test their oxytocin levels. They also look at changes in the babies as they develop using a specially designed EEG or electroencephalogram cap that gauges brain wave activity. They do the EEG when the baby is 2 weeks old, 3 to 4 months old, and again at 6 months old. Jones looks at the asymmetry in the baby’s brain to see how the left and right sides of the brain are communicating, which has been associated with emotional experiences and learning.

“In our previous studies on breast feeding versus bottle feeding and depression, we found similar patterns of brain asymmetry in the baby and the mother,” said Jones. “What appears to be happening is that these babies are either inheriting or developing a pattern that is similar to their mother’s depression. They focus on the negative emotions and withdraw from stimuli as if they are withdrawing from the world.”

Jones has enrolled close to 50 participants in this current study and hopes to increase that number to approximately 250. Comparison groups in the study include depressed and non-depressed, breast feeding vs. bottle feeding, different levels of feeding (breastfeeding at first or exclusive breast feeding), different levels of depression, and different levels of bonding.

“If depression in mothers-to-be is not addressed and treated, these mood disorders can negatively impact the child’s well-being and the important mother-child bonding process,” said Jones. “So many women don’t want to talk about depression in pregnancy or postpartum because they think that it’s saying something about their inability to parent, and it’s not. There are a lot of factors that are contributing to mental health including hormonal, cultural or just the stress that’s associated with being a parent. And all of these things can be helped.”

The FAU WAVES Emotion Laboratory is focused on understanding the factors that contribute to the development of socio-emotional wellness during infancy and childhood. Funded in part by the National Institute of Mental Health, research in the laboratory is designed to explore and understand the contributors to optimal infant and child development.