This week, we’re discussing oxytocin – its functions, how it affects children and ways to increase levels to help them lead a more balanced and fulfilled life.
There four major chemicals in the brain that influence our happiness are:
Activated by positive social interactions, oxytocin is known as the “love molecule” or “cuddle chemical” and is the foundation for trusting others. It motivates us to work together for a common purpose and makes us care about others in tangible ways – and essentially increasing empathy and compassion.
Let’s discuss the neuroscience bit.
“Oxytocin helps us respond appropriately to our social environment by changing its amounts in the brain second by second.
Because it is so ancient (a precursor can be traced back at least 400 million years to fish), natural selection has found ways to utilise it in both the brain and the body. Unlike almost every other neuro-chemical we make, studies have shown that the change in oxytocin after a social interaction as measured in the blood reflects changes in the brain. Thus, if an activity causes a spike in oxytocin as measured in the blood, a corresponding spike is likely occurring in the brain. It is brain oxytocin that is most responsible for effects on behaviour, and blood oxytocin gives us a window into what occurs in the brain.”
So, as parents and caregivers, how can we increase levels in children, thereby increasing their empathy and compassion? By offering them lots of sensitive, responsive care.
We have good reason to believe that sensitive, responsive parenting and care-giving can cause immediate spikes of oxytocin in babies and children. Skin-to-skin contact appears to raise levels in both parents and infants (Vittner 2018). An experiment on school-aged children confirms that big kids can get a boost when their parents offer emotional support. Affectionate physical contact does it. So does affectionate conversation (Selzer 2010).
Benefits of increasing oxytocin levels:
- Reduces anxiety and the release of cortisol, your body’s main stress hormone
- Increases feelings of calmness and security
- Suppresses activity in the amygdala, the fear centre of your brain
- Improves mood and increases feelings of contentment
- Stimulates the vagus nerve
- Increases creativity
- Improve self-perception in social situations
- Increases positive personality traits such as empathy, warmth, trust, and openness
Ways to increase oxytocin
- Natural sunlight, ideally first thing in the morning as well as throughout the day
- Vitamin C from fruits and vegetables, as well as a supplement
- Magnesium-rich foods such as spinach, chard, pumpkin seeds, almonds, avocado and bananas
- Hugs and cuddles
- Listening to music
- Singing along to music
- Free play
- Giving someone a gift
- Doing something kind for someone else