Variations in maternal care in the rat as a mediating influence for the effects of environment on development

Physiol Behav. 2003 Aug;79(3):359-71. doi: 10.1016/s0031-9384(03)00149-5.


Variations in maternal care have been widely considered as a critical influence in development. In the rat, variations in maternal behavior, particularly in licking/grooming, regulate the development of endocrine, emotional and cognitive responses to stress. These studies form the basis of a potentially useful model for the study of maternal effects in mammals. In this paper we provide a detailed methodological investigation into this model of maternal behavior, providing an analysis of the frequency, temporal dynamics, and transmission of maternal licking/grooming in several large cohorts. Frequency data indicate that licking/grooming is normally distributed across dams. The peak in licking/grooming occurs in the first few days postpartum and gradually declines. Dams designated as High or Low LG mothers differ in this behavior only during the first week postpartum. Observations over Days 2 to 5 postpartum are essential for the reliable assessments of individual differences in maternal behavior. Individual differences in licking/grooming behavior are stable across multiple litters, and are not associated with differences in litter size, weaning weight of pups, or gender ratio of the litter. We also observed no significant differences in the amount of licking/grooming received by individual pups within a litter, though variation does exist. Finally, maternal licking/grooming is transmitted to female offspring, though there is considerable within-litter variation in the expression of this behavior. Overall, these findings indicate considerable, normal variations in licking/grooming in the rat that are a stable, individual characteristic of rat dams.

Publication types

  • Comparative Study

MeSH terms

  • Adaptation, Physiological
  • Animals
  • Female
  • Grooming*
  • Imprinting, Psychological
  • Individuality*
  • Lactation / psychology*
  • Litter Size
  • Maternal Behavior / psychology*
  • Models, Animal
  • Phenotype*
  • Rats
  • Rats, Long-Evans
  • Sex Factors