Testosterone, oxytocin, and the development of human parental care

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The steroid testosterone (T) and neuropeptide oxytocin (OT) have each been implicated in the development of parental care in humans and animals, yet very little research addressed the interaction between these hormones at the transition to parenthood in mothers and fathers. One hundred and sixty mothers and fathers (80 couples) were visited 1 and 6 months after the birth of their first child, plasma OT and T were assayed at each time-point, and interactions between each parent and the infant were observed and micro-coded for two key parental behaviors; affectionate touch and parent-infant synchrony. T showed gender-specific effects. While paternal T was individually stable across the first six months of parenting and predicted lower father-infant synchrony, maternal T was neither stable nor predictive of maternal behavior. An interaction of OT and T showed that T has complex modulatory effects on the relations of OT and parenting. Slope analysis revealed that among fathers, only when T was high (+ 1SD), negative associations emerged between OT and father affectionate touch. In contrast, among mothers, the context of high T was related to a positive association between OT and maternal touch. Our findings, the first to test the interaction of OT and T in relation to observed maternal behavior, underscore the need for much further research on the complex bidirectional effects of steroid and neuropeptide systems on human mothering and fathering.

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