Possible undesirable effects of oxytocin in postpartum depression

The oxytocin hormone is recognized as a potential medicine to treat mothers suffering from postpartum depression, but Beth Mah has discovered that this substance can produce negative as well as positive results. Her PhD defence takes place on 7 January 2015.

Maternal bonding

The oxytocin molecule (in a necklace)

The oxytocin molecule (in a necklace)

Oxytocin plays a very important role in the bonding process between mothers and their children, but also in friendships, romantic interactions and sexuality. Studies are being carried out on the hormone as part of the research on schizophrenia and autism, that also highlighted its use as a treatment for postpartum depression. Australian psychiatrist Beth Mah, a PhD candidate under Marian Bakermans Kranenburg and Rien van IJzendoorn, had her doubts about the positive effects of the hormone in mothers suffering from depression. She administered oxytocin and a placebo to a group of 25 mothers suffering from postpartum depression whose children were between three and twelve months old.


More depressed and overprotective

The effects of the hormone were shown to be very variable. Those mothers who received oxytocin felt more depressed in the short term than those who had been given the placebo. And, although they saw their relationship with their baby in a more positive light, they described the infant as ‘more of a burden’. The mothers who received oxytocin also became more protective of their child if there were strangers around who wanted to approach the child. If they heard the noise of crying babies, they experienced a greater sense of urgency to respond, but they also indicated that they would be very firm with the child to stop the crying and might even handle them roughly. These results convinced Mah that psychiatrists should be more cautious when prescribing oxytocin to treat postpartum depression, as every mother responds very differently to it.

Beth Mah back in Leiden to prepare a publication, with her two jet-lagged children.

Beth Mah back in Leiden to prepare a publication, with her two jet-lagged children.

Indigenous Australians

After successfully completing her dissertation, Mah hopes to further specialise in the care and welfare of children in Australia. The children of Indigenous Australians are a particularly vulnerable group; they tend to have more psycho-social problems than non-indigenous Australians.

(6 January 2015)

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Last Modified: 07-01-2015