This is going to be a very short post I feel! I’ve talked a lot about the hormone oxytocin on this blog – the ‘love hormone’ or ‘happy hormone’. But there are many other important chemicals in our body, and one, in particular, that does its bit for bonding and many other things. It’s the neurotransmitter serotonin.
Serotonin does a number of good things in the body, but the one I’m writing about today is it’s apparent ability to protect against SIDS (cot death). It appears, from various scientific studies (there are a surprising number, actually!), that one of the causes of SIDS could be low levels of serotonin, which suggests that parents might want to do what they can to ensure that their babies have high levels of serotonin circulating in their brains.
How does it work, though? Serotonin helps to regulate all the autonomic functions in our bodies – things we do without having to think about them: regulating our temperature, our heart rate, our breathing and when we fall asleep and wake up. We know that babies who die from SIDS are often too hot, so that’s clearly how serotonin works in that instance.
But it also helps babies to breathe by making their brains more aware of high carbon-dioxide levels in their bodies. A high carbon dioxide level is what triggers all of us to breathe – if your sensitivity to it is low, then you’re at risk of your body not stimulating you to keep breathing, and this is possibly one of the things that happens with SIDS, and why serotonin seems to play such an important protective role.
So how can we make sure our babies have high serotonin levels? Well, the answer is not categorically to do attachment parenting! It’s not not to do it, but there appears to be very little evidence that attachment parenting should be the answer. You might be wondering why I would bother to say this? Well the reason is because this post is inspired by a post I followed a link to today, the headline of which reads:
Attachment Parenting practices linked to reduction in SIDS rates
Now I actually like a lot of what attachment parenting advocates say, because there is a strong evidence base behind the practices they recommend. What there is *not* an evidence base for at the moment is the idea that it protects against SIDS, and for the other claim the author of the article makes: that ‘touch is one way to naturally increase a baby’s serotonin levels’.
I chatted to my cousin about this today, the brilliant science blogger (A is for Aspirin) known to the twittersphere as Katielase. After much collaborative searching online, and discussion, we came to the conclusion that it sounds like an awful lot of people with an interest in an evidence base for touch increasing serotonin (massage therapists etc.) have latched on to just one piece of research.
We found lots and lots and lots of articles all saying the same thing: touch/massage etc. increases levels of serotonin. But of the few that linked to any research to back this up, we only found the one.
I want to reassure readers that, in writing this blog, I endeavour to make it clear when I’m writing about things speculatively, and when I’m talking about facts. And if I write about facts I won’t do so without knowing for certain that they are as accurate as possible and one piece of research simply isn’t enough to prove anything. It needs to be critiqued for how robust it is, and peer reviewed, and, ideally, included in a thorough literature review of similar studies, before the results can be accepted as fact.
Of course, it may well be true that touch increases serotonin levels – it makes sense. Serotonin is the neurotransmitter connected with feelings of happiness and relaxation. But just ‘making sense’ doesn’t cut it when it comes to telling parents that something is fact!
Now, I have to add here, that the article in question isn’t completely inaccurate. The writer makes plenty of references to practices that do have a strong evidence-base as being protective against SIDS, but what I want to say here is the following:
Be wary of automatically accepting statements made on the internet, or anywhere, as fact, and be wary of being so excited about what you’ve just read that you tell everyone you know about it as if it’s fact. Firstly, it has the potential to cause confusion and misunderstanding, and secondly, it may have a bit of a ‘boy who cried wolf’ effect!
Having said that, cuddling your baby lots and lots can only be good for him or her and for you. As each piece of new research about baby-care practices comes out, we learn more and more that those ‘experts’ who have been telling us for over a century that cuddling is bad for babies are, quite frankly, wrong and have probably caused a lot of harm. Cuddling your baby has so many benefits, that the possible added benefit of protecting against SIDS would only be the icing on the cake. So cuddle away, and trust that your closeness is definitely good for your baby :).