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The endocrinology of human caregiving and its intergenerational transmission

  • Peter A. Bos (a1)

Variation in the quality of parental care has a tremendous impact on a child's social–emotional development. Research investigating the predictors of this variability in human caregiving behavior has mostly focused on learning mechanisms. Evidence is currently accumulating for the complementary underlying role of steroid hormones and neuropeptides. An overview is provided of the hormones and neuropeptides relevant for human caregiving behavior. Then the developmental factors are described that stimulate variability in sensitivity to these hormones and neuropeptides, which may result in variability in the behavioral repertoire of caregiving. The role of genetic variation in neuropeptide and steroid receptors, the role of testosterone and oxytocin during fetal development and parturition, and the impact of experienced caregiving in childhood on functioning of the neuroendocrine stress and oxytocin system are discussed. Besides providing a heuristic framework for further research on the ontogenetic development of human caregiving, a neuroendocrine model is also presented for the intergenerational transmission of caregiving practices. Insight into the underlying biological mechanisms that bring about maladaptive caregiving behavior, such as neglect and insensitive parenting, will hopefully result in more efficient approaches to reduce the high prevalence of such behavior and to minimize the impact on those affected.

Corresponding author
Address correspondence and reprint requests to: Peter A. Bos, Department of Experimental Psychology, Utrecht University, Heidelberglaan 1, 3584CS, Utrecht, The Netherlands; E-mail:
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I thank Marinus H. van IJzendoorn, Marian J. Bakermans-Kranenburg, Bernet Elzinga, Dennis Hofman, Hannah Spencer, and the reviewers for their valuable comments on the manuscript. The work in this paper was supported by a grant from the Netherlands Society of Scientific Research (451-14-015) and a Dynamics of Youth seed grant from Utrecht University.

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