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Murray Edwards College
University of Cambridge

School Winner: Hormones or Instinct - Do babies need to earn parental love?

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    26 Jan

    phoebe-clargo-headington-school16c-headington-phoebe-clargoThere are three types of love. In order of increasing strength, these are: ‘Eros’ (or erotic) love; ‘Philos’ (or friendship) love and ‘Agape’ (or unconditional love). Thus, ‘Agape’ is the highest form of love, which neither depends on the love being returned or any benefits being bestowed on the lover, but is utterly selfless. ‘Agape’ is the kind of love felt between parent and child. Unlike the other forms of love, ‘Agape’ is not earned or lost, it just is. For example, when two people become a couple, they do not love each other immediately, but rather have to learn to love each other. However, if they go on to have a child, they will love that baby from the second that he/she enters this world.

    I was really interested in what the cause of this love is, so I decided to look into it further.

    ‘Agape’ is often said to be an evolutionary instinct that leads to the continuation of a species, by making the parents go to extreme lengths to protect their (often vulnerable) offspring. Whilst parental love like is this is shown in all animals, it is particularly evident in species who tend to produce less offspring (K-strategists according to the r/K selection theory), and less so in animals who produce many offspring throughout their life (r-strategists). Again, this supports the idea that parental love is an evolutionary instinct, as K-strategists (eg. humans) have to protect their children more carefully, as they do not have the ‘safety-net’ of such a vast number of offspring to ensure the continuation of their genes. Therefore, they feel a much stronger bond to their young, to ensure the offsprings’ survival by increased nurturing. Another biological reason for parental love is that during pregnancy, levels of oxytocin dramatically increase, allowing the mother to get through the exhaustion and pain of labour, whilst also providing a feeling of intense love when she finally sets her eyes on her child. However, it is not only the mother that experiences the effects of oxytocin. It has been shown that the levels of oxytocin in the father spikes upon first sight of the child (so parental love is quite literally ‘love at first sight’). Hormones continue to affect father's’ love for the first few months of their baby’s life, as the levels of their testosterone plummet, whilst their estrogen levels increase. Experts say that this increase allows the oxytocin to have a greater  effect on the brain, increasing their love and attentiveness even more! The pleasure hormone, dopamine, also plays a part in the ‘Agape’ between parent and child. It is not only released in both parties when there is physical contact (eg. holding, rocking or feeding), but also just from spending time with each other.

    Studies have even shown that dopamine can be released in mothers just by getting them to look at a photo of their child.

    Dopamine also helps babies to bond with their parents, as shown by a study into baby mice. Those that were unable to sense dopamine did not mind whether or not their mother was near them, unlike mice that could experience the positive effects of the dopamine that was released when the mother was near. To conclude, I believe that both parental instinct and hormones play a huge part in parental love and explain why we never had to earn our parents’ love.

    Phoebe Clargo
    Year 12 at Headington School