The biology of mammalian parenting and its effect on offspring social development

Science. 2014 Aug 15;345(6198):771-6. doi: 10.1126/science.1252723. Epub 2014 Aug 14.


Parents know the transformative nature of having and caring for a child. Among many mammals, giving birth leads from an aversion to infant stimuli to irresistible attraction. Here, we review the biological mechanisms governing this shift in parental motivation in mammals. Estrogen and progesterone prepare the uterus for embryo implantation and placental development. Prolactin stimulates milk production, whereas oxytocin initiates labor and triggers milk ejection during nursing. These same molecules, interacting with dopamine, also activate specific neural pathways to motivate parents to nurture, bond with, and protect their offspring. Parenting in turn shapes the neural development of the infant social brain. Recent work suggests that many of the principles governing parental behavior and its effect on infant development are conserved from rodent to humans.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Brain / growth & development
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Child Development
  • Dopamine / physiology
  • Female
  • Hormones / physiology
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Male
  • Mammals / physiology
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Oxytocin / physiology
  • Parenting*
  • Paternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Social Change*


  • Hormones
  • Oxytocin
  • Dopamine