The science of oxytocin and its implications on sleep


In the intricate web of neurochemistry, few substances carry as much emotional weight as oxytocin—the so-called “love hormone.” Known for its role in fostering social bonds, trust, and maternal instincts, oxytocin is a fascinating chemical messenger with implications that extend beyond matters of the heart.

Beyond its role in social bonding and childbirth, oxytocin has sparked curiosity about its potential impact on sleep. And who needs sleep more than parents of young babies?

So let’s delve into the science of oxytocin, exploring its functions and investigating whether it holds any implications for your sleep.

What is oxytocin?

Oxytocin is like a special chemical in your brain and body that helps you feel close to others, especially your baby. It’s often called the “love hormone” or the “cuddle hormone” because it makes you feel warm, connected, and loving towards your baby.

Just like endorphins or serotonin, Oxytocin is a type of hormone in your body that promotes positive feelings.

When we do things that bring us closer to people we care about, like hugging, sharing a meal, or playing together, our bodies release oxytocin. This hormone gives us a warm and fuzzy feeling and makes us want to be close to friends, family, or even pets.

For parents, oxytocin is crucial. Moms release it during childbirth and breastfeeding, while both moms and dads release it when spending quality time with their kids. Oxytocin helps build a strong bond between parents and their children.

In a nutshell, oxytocin acts like a magical love potion in our bodies, creating a sense of warmth and connection with the people who matter most to us.

What does oxytocin do?

Oxytocin’s primary functions extend beyond its romanticized nickname. Research indicates that oxytocin may positively influence social behaviors associated with relaxation, trust, and general psychological well-being.

While oxytocin has earned its reputation as the “love hormone,” its functions are multi-faceted and intricate. Beyond romance, oxytocin contributes to the intricate tapestry of human connections, from the earliest moments of life to ongoing social interactions. 

Here are some things that oxytocin does:

  • Social bonding, the glue that connects us
  • At its core, oxytocin serves as the glue that binds individuals together. It plays a pivotal role in fostering social bonds, facilitating feelings of attachment, trust, and intimacy. Think of oxytocin as the invisible force weaving the intricate tapestry of human connections, influencing how we relate to one another on both emotional and social levels.

  • Nurturing the parent-child bond
  • Oxytocin is the unsung hero of parenthood, particularly in the early stages of a child’s life. From the miraculous journey of childbirth to the tender moments of breastfeeding, oxytocin takes center stage. This hormone not only stimulates the contractions of the uterus during labor but also fosters the crucial bond between parent and child. It promotes nurturing behaviors and contributes to the formation and maintenance of the profound parent-child connection.

  • Physiological responses
  • Oxytocin reduces stress by diminishing cortisol levels, our body’s stress hormone, promoting an overall sense of relaxation. Oxytocin also steps into the spotlight during positive social interactions, elevating the rewarding aspects of relationships and reinforcing the positive connections we share with others.

  • Reducing fear and anxiety
  • Beyond its role in social bonding, oxytocin has a remarkable ability to reduce fear and anxiety. It acts as a soothing balm, modulating our emotional responses to social situations and creating a sense of safety and security. This helps individuals navigate the complexities of social interactions with greater ease and comfort.

    When is oxytocin released in parents?

    Parents, in particular, experience notable oxytocin releases during key moments with their child. 

    For mothers, oxytocin surges during labor and breastfeeding, promoting maternal-infant bonding. Fathers, too, witness increases in oxytocin levels, likely influenced by involved parenting activities, skin-to-skin contact, and shared caregiving responsibilities.

    Think of oxytocin as your body’s way of saying, “Hey, you’re doing a great job as a parent, and I’m here to help you feel connected and happy with your little one!”

    Does oxytocin make you sleepy? 

    The relationship between oxytocin and sleep is a captivating intersection. Research suggests that oxytocin may indeed have implications for sleep, potentially influencing the duration and quality of rest.

    For parents, release of oxytocin during caregiving activities might contribute to a sense of calm and relaxation conducive to a more restful sleep.

    When parents engage in nurturing behaviors, whether it’s cradling their baby or spending quality time with them, oxytocin is released. This surge in oxytocin may not only enhance the parent-child bond but also create an environment that supports better sleep. The calming effects of oxytocin, combined with the emotional rewards of parenting, could contribute to improved sleep patterns.

    It’s crucial to acknowledge that individual responses may vary, and the interplay of oxytocin with other factors influencing sleep requires further exploration. 

    How to increase oxytocin

    According to Harvard Health Publishing, “Low oxytocin levels have been linked to symptoms of depression, including postpartum depression.

    Increasing oxytocin levels can be achieved through various activities and experiences that promote social bonding, positive interactions, and well-being. 

    Here are eight activities that may promote the release of oxytocin for parents:

  • Physical affection
  • Engage in regular physical affection with your children, such as hugs, cuddling, and holding hands. Physical affection releases oxytocin and helps strengthen the parent-child bond. Additionally, parents should also prioritize physical touch between each other, such as hugs and kisses, to enhance their own connection.

  • Exercise
  • According to a study published in the Balkan Medical Journal, exercise increases oxytocin levels. Incorporating shared physical activities with your partner, such as exercising together or participating in fitness-related hobbies, can further enhance the emotional connection between parents. You can also take your little one for a walk in their stroller. It’s a great low-life activity for new parents.

  • Breastfeeding
  • For mothers, breastfeeding is a way to increase oxytocin levels. The act of breastfeeding stimulates the release of oxytocin, promoting a sense of calm and bonding between the mother and the infant. 

  • Active listening
  • Actively listening to your children and showing empathy can enhance the parent-child relationship. Taking the time to understand your child’s thoughts, feelings, and concerns fosters trust and emotional connection. Similarly, practicing active listening with your partner helps in strengthening the emotional bond between parents.

  • Shared activities and teamwork
  • Engage in activities that involve collaboration and teamwork, both with your children (if they’re slightly older) and your partner. Working together on projects, household chores, or family goals fosters a sense of unity and cooperation. This shared experience contributes to the release of oxytocin and strengthens the family bond.

  • Playing together
  • Play fosters a sense of joy, laughter, and shared experiences, all of which contribute to the release of oxytocin. Whether it’s playing board games, engaging in imaginative play, or participating in physical activities, the shared enjoyment helps strengthen the parent-child bond. 

    Parents can also extend this principle by incorporating playful activities into their interactions with each other, such as engaging in fun games or shared hobbies, to enhance their own emotional connection.

    Note: It’s essential to note that while these strategies may contribute to increased oxytocin levels, the effects can vary among individuals. If you feel like you’re struggling during postpartum, contact your doctor or mental health professional. 


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