Mums will do anything to keep their children safe from harm, and we’ve all heard incredible stories of mums rescuing their children from imminent danger - even when their own lives are at risk.
So, what exactly is behind this amazing motherly instinct to protect our little ones? Well, according to a new study published in eLife, the “love hormone” oxytocin appears to play a major role.
Oxytocin is a powerful neurotransmitter released in the brain by physical touch and is often known as the “love hormone”. It creates feelings of happiness and relaxation in the mind and can be released through kissing, hugging or cuddling.
Oxytocin plays a special role in childbirth and nursing. It causes the uterus to contract during labour and also stimulates the body to “let down” milk for a nursing infant. This is why some women experience a feeling of relaxation or contentment after breastfeeding.
Scientists decided to investigate the connection between oxytocin and the motherly bond by manipulating oxytocin levels in the brains of rats which had just given birth.
They separated the mothers from their babies and trained them to associate the smell of peppermint with an unpleasant stimulus of an electric shock.
They then tested out their theory by releasing the same smell to the mothers in the presence of their babies. They found that the mothers’ responses were varied according to the level of oxytocin in their brain.
When the mother rats experienced a surge of oxytocin to the brain, they tended to defend their young by either attacking the tube releasing the scent, or guarding their little ones fiercely.
However, when scientists injected a substance to block oxytocin production in the brains of the mothers, they tended to freeze and didn’t engage in protective behaviours.
Another really interesting finding was that the baby rats whose mothers protected them learned to see the scent of peppermint as a threat, whereas those whose mothers didn’t acknowledge the smell didn’t see it as a danger.
This indicates that a mother’s behaviour in the presence of a threat has implications for how a child could perceive potential danger in the future.
It certainly is one interesting theory which may explain the powerful need we have to protect our children in the face of danger.