Both oxytocin and serotonin modulate affiliative responses to partners and offspring. Animal studies suggest a crucial role of oxytocin in mammalian parturition and lactation but also in parenting and social interactions with offspring. The serotonergic system may also be important through its influence on mood and the release of oxytocin. We examined the role of serotonin transporter (5-HTT) and oxytocin receptor (OXTR) genes in explaining differences in sensitive parenting in a community sample of 159 Caucasian, middle-class mothers with their 2-year-old toddlers at risk for externalizing behavior problems, taking into account maternal educational level, maternal depression and the quality of the marital relationship. Independent genetic effects of 5-HTTLPR SCL6A4 and OXTR rs53576 on observed maternal sensitivity were found. Controlling for differences in maternal education, depression and marital discord, parents with the possibly less efficient variants of the serotonergic (5-HTT ss) and oxytonergic (AA/AG) system genes showed lower levels of sensitive responsiveness to their toddlers. Two-way and three-way interactions with marital discord or depression were not significant. This first study on the role of both OXTR and 5-HTT genes in human parenting points to molecular genetic differences that may be implicated in the production of oxytocin explaining differences in sensitive parenting.
- Marital discord
- Maternal depression
- Oxytocin receptor (OXTR) gene
- Serotonin transporter (5-HTT) gene