Maternal caregiving has been shown to have a tremendous impact on a child’s outcome, physically and emotionally. Mothers who have depression tend to be more detached from their parenting role and show less warmth and support to their children than mothers without depression. Similarly, mothers who themselves experienced childhood adversity, including neglect, maltreatment, abuse, and abandonment, are at increased risk for parenting disruptions. But until recently, the role of genetic differences in mothers with these impairments and without has not been studied thoroughly. To address this and explore how genetic variations impact the caregiving a mother provides, Viara Milleva-Seitz of the Institute of Medical Science at the University of Toronto in Canada examined how 187 mothers interacted with their infants.
Milleva-Seitz looked at several oxytocin gene receptors and also considered the type of childhood maltreatment, abuse or neglect the mothers had experienced. The participants reported their levels of prenatal and postpartum depression and also detailed the type of support they received from caregivers during their own childhoods. Milleva-Seitz discovered that the mothers who had polymorphisms in the oxytocin receptors had higher levels of vocalizing toward their infant than those without the altered genes. Additionally, the mothers with gene alterations were at increased risk of impaired caregiving if they had significant traumas or abuses during their childhoods.
When Milleva-Seitz examined the results further, it was discovered that postpartum depression did not directly affect instrumental infant care. However, certain oxytocin gene receptor alterations did affect the likelihood of mothers developing postpartum depression. Further, specific oxytocin genes were associated with prenatal depression, but not postpartum depression. These results underscore the importance of looking at all variables associated with risk for impaired caregiving. They also suggest that a mother’s genetic make-up has a large influence on caregiving and, ultimately, the psychological and physical outcome of her children. Milleva-Seitz added, “Finally, our findings highlight the importance of examining multiple dimensions of human maternal behavior in studies of genetic associations.”
Mileva-Seitz, V., Steiner, M., Atkinson, L., Meaney, M.J., Levitan, R., et al. (2013). Interaction between oxytocin genotypes and early experience predicts quality of mothering and postpartum mood. PLoS ONE 8(4): e61443. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0061443
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