Chapter 6: Hormones and Behavior

6.4: Parental Behaviors

Parental behavior can be considered to be any behavior that contributes directly to the survival of fertilized eggs or offspring that have left the body of the female. There are many patterns of mammalian parental care. The developmental status of the newborn is an important factor driving the type and quality of parental care in a species. Maternal care is much more common than paternal care. The vast majority of research on the hormonal correlates of mammalian parental behavior has been conducted on rats. Rats have altricial (underdeveloped) young, and mothers perform a cluster of stereotyped maternal behaviors, including nest building, crouching over the pups to allow nursing and provide warmth, pup retrieval, and increased aggression directed at intruders. If you expose nonpregnant female rats (or males) to pups, their most common reaction is to huddle far away from them. Rats avoid new things (neophobia). However, if you expose adult rats to pups every day, they soon begin to behave maternally. This process is called concaveation or sensitization and it appears to serve to reduce the adult rats’ fear of pups.

A new mother needs to act maternally as soon as her offspring arrives—not in a week. The onset of maternal behavior in rats is mediated by hormones. Several methods of study, such as hormone removal and replacement therapy, have been used to determine the hormonal correlates of rat maternal behavior. A fast decline of blood concentrations of progesterone in late pregnancy, in combination with high concentrations of estradiol and probably prolactin and oxytocin, induces female rats to behave maternally almost immediately in the presence of pups. This pattern of hormones at birth overrides the usual fear response of adult rats toward pups, and it permits the onset of maternal behavior. Thus, the so-called maternal “instinct” requires hormones to increase the approach tendency and lower the avoidance tendency; the quality and type of maternal behaviors, however, are mediated by both hormones and maternal modeling in rodents as well as humans.


Figure 8. Although cortisol may not directly increase maternal behaviors, the next time your mom gives you a hug, you know one hormone to thank.

A series of elegant experiments by Alison Fleming and her collaborators studied the endocrine correlates of the behavior of human mothers and maternal attitudes. Mothers self-reported on questionnaires approach behaviors, including affectionate behaviors (e.g., patting, cuddling, or kissing the baby) and vocal behaviors (e.g., talking, singing, or cooing to the baby). Basic caregiving activities, such as changing diapers and burping the infants, were also recorded. In these self-report studies, no relationship between hormone concentrations and maternal responsiveness, as measured by questionnaires, was found. However, when actual behavior, rather than questionnaire responses, was compared with hormone concentrations, a different story emerged. Cortisol concentrations were positively associated with approach behaviors. In other words, women with high concentrations of cortisol, in samples obtained immediately before or after nursing, engaged in more physically affectionate behaviors and talked more often to their babies than mothers with low cortisol concentrations. Additional analyses revealed that the correlation was even greater for mothers that had reported positive maternal regard (feelings and attitudes) during gestation. Indeed, nearly half of the variation in maternal behavior among women could be accounted for by cortisol concentrations and positive maternal attitudes during pregnancy.

Presumably, cortisol does not induce maternal behaviors directly, but it may act indirectly on the quality of maternal care by evoking an increase in the mother’s general level of arousal, thus increasing her responsiveness to infant-generated cues. New mothers with high cortisol concentrations were also more attracted to their infant’s odors, were superior in identifying their infants, and generally found cues from infants highly appealing (Fleming et al., 1997).

The medial preoptic area is critical for the expression of rat maternal behavior. The amygdala appears to tonically inhibit the expression of maternal behavior. Adult rats are fearful of pups, a response that is apparently mediated by chemosensory information. Lesions of the amygdala or afferent sensory pathways from the vomeronasal organ to the amygdala disinhibit the expression of maternal behavior. Hormones or sensitization likely act to disinhibit the amygdala, thus permitting the occurrence of maternal behavior. Although correlations have been established, direct evidence of brain structural changes in human mothers remains unspecified (Fleming & Gonzalez, 2009).

Considered together, there are many examples of hormones influencing behavior and of behavior feeding back to influence hormone secretion. More and more examples of hormone–behavior interactions have been discovered, including hormones in the mediation of food and fluid intake, social interactions, salt balance, learning and memory, stress coping, as well as psychopathology, including depression, anxiety disorders, eating disorders, postpartum depression, and seasonal depression. Additional research should reveal how these hormone–behavior interactions are mediated.

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