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Review article - Peer-reviewed, 2020

Are There Epigenetic Oxytocin-Mediated Effects on the Mother and Infant during Physiological Childbirth?

Uvnas-Moberg, Kerstin; Gross, Mechthild M.; Agius, Andee; Downe, Soo; Calleja-Agius, Jean


Introduction: Studies have shown that long-term positive behavioural and physiological changes are induced in connection with vaginal, physiological birth, and skin-to-skin contact after birth in mothers and babies. Some of these effects are consistent with the effect profile of oxytocin. This scoping review explores whether epigenetic changes of the oxytocin gene and of the oxytocin receptor gene (OTR) are involved in these effects. Methods: We searched Pubmed, Medline, BioMed Central, Cochrane Library, OVID, and Web of Science for evidence of epigenetic changes in connection with childbirth in humans, with a particular focus on the oxytocin system. Results: There were no published studies identified that were related to epigenetic changes of oxytocin and its receptor in connection with labour, birth, and skin-to-skin contact after birth in mothers and babies. However, some studies were identified that showed polymorphisms of the oxytocin receptor influenced the progress of labour. We also identified studies in which the level of global methylation was measured in vaginal birth and caesarean section, with conflicting results. Some studies identified differences in the level of methylation of single genes linked to various effects, for example, immune response, metabolism, and inflammation. In some of these cases, the level of methylation was associated with the duration of labour or mode of birth. We also identified some studies that demonstrated long-term effects of mode of birth and of skin-to-skin contact linked to changes in oxytocin function. Conclusion: There were no studies identified that showed epigenetic changes of the oxytocin system in connection with physiological birth. The lack of evidence, so far, regarding epigenetic changes did not exclude future demonstrations of such effects, as there was a definite role of oxytocin in creating long-term effects during the perinatal period. Such studies may not have been performed. Alternatively, the oxytocin linked effects might be indirectly mediated via other receptors and signalling systems. We conclude that there is a significant lack of research examining long-term changes of oxytocin function and long-term oxytocin mediated adaptive effects induced during physiological birth and skin-to-skin contact after birth in mothers and their infants.


oxytocin; oxytocin receptor; epigenetics; polymorphisms; vaginal birth; caesarian section; skin-to-skin contact; effects of oxytocin; longterm effects; health

Published in

International Journal of Molecular Sciences
2020, volume: 21, number: 24, article number: 9503
Publisher: MDPI

Authors' information

Swedish University of Agricultural Sciences, Department of Animal Environment and Health
Gross, Mechthild M.
Hannover Medical School
Agius, Andee
Mater Dei Hospital
Downe, Soo
University of Central Lancashire
Calleja-Agius, Jean
University of Malta

Associated SLU-program


UKÄ Subject classification

Obstetrics, Gynecology and Reproductive Medicine

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