Calming Cycle Theory and the Co-Regulation of Oxytocin

Psychodyn Psychiatry. 2017 Winter;45(4):519-540. doi: 10.1521/pdps.2017.45.4.519.


The biological functions of oxytocin in attachment and bonding between mother and infant in parturition and breastfeeding and between adults have been studied extensively. However, most current authors have proposed that infant attachment to the mother is learned through operant conditioning mechanisms via the infant's brain and central nervous system. We propose that oxytocin levels in the mother and infant are co-regulated by emotional connection or disconnection, and that the autonomic co-conditioning learning mechanism can be exploited to change a negative physiological and behavioral response between mother and infant into a positive one. Lack of efficacy and scalability of child development therapies that have come out of the attachment theoretical framework have prompted calls for new ideas. Here, we review calming cycle theory, which takes a new view of the emotional relationship of mother and infant, and predicts ways to positively intervene when problems arise. The theory builds upon the research and ideas of Pavlov and his followers and proposes that subcortical Pavlovian co-conditioning of the autonomic nervous systems of mother and infant is the key to maintaining emotional connection between the two and to shaping emotional behavior of the infant into adulthood. We review evidence in support of calming cycle theory from a randomized controlled trial of Family Nurture Intervention (FNI), which is designed to overcome adverse emotional, behavioral, and developmental outcomes in prematurely born infants. Finally, we discuss the role of visceral oxytocin and emotional behavior, and that the conditional mother-infant relationship may affect behavioral changes through anti-inflammatory gut-brain stem vagal signaling.

Keywords: Family Nurture Intervention; Pavlovian conditioning; autonomic nervous system; emotional connection; microbiome.

MeSH terms

  • Autonomic Nervous System / physiology
  • Conditioning, Classical / physiology*
  • Emotions
  • Female
  • Humans
  • Infant
  • Infant Behavior / psychology
  • Male
  • Mother-Child Relations / psychology*
  • Object Attachment*
  • Oxytocin / metabolism*
  • Randomized Controlled Trials as Topic


  • Oxytocin