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Expanding Regulation Theory With Oxytocin: A Psychoneurobiological Model for Infant Development

Weber, Ashley, M.; Harrison, Tondi, M.; Steward, Deborah, K.

doi: 10.1097/NNR.0000000000000261

Background Oxytocin (OT), an affiliation hormone released during supportive social interactions, provides an exemplar of how social environments are reflected in our neurobiology from the beginning of life. A growing body of OT research has uncovered previously unknown functions of OT, including modulation of parenting behaviors, neuroprotection, affiliation, and bonding. Regulation theory provides a strong framework for describing how the maternal care environment affects infant neurodevelopment through a symphony of molecules that form the neurobiological milieu of the developing infant brain.

Objectives The purpose of this article was to expand on regulation theory by discussing how OT-based processes contribute to infant neurobiology and by proposing a new model for maternal–infant nursing practice and research.

Approach We structure our discussion of the socially based, neurobiological processes of OT through its effects in the nested hierarchies of genetic, epigenetic, molecular, cellular, neural circuit, multiorgan, and behavioral levels. Our discussion is also presented chronologically, as OT works through a positive feedback loop during infant neurodevelopment, beginning prenatally and continuing after birth.

Implications Nurses are in a unique position to use innovative discoveries made by the biologic sciences to generate new nursing theories that inform clinical practice and inspire the development of innovative interventions that maximize the infant’s exposure to supportive maternal care.

Ashley M. Weber, PhD, RN, is Postdoctoral Fellow, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, Ohio.

Tondi M. Harrison, PhD, RN, is Assistant Professor; and Deborah K. Steward, PhD, RN, is Associate Professor, The Ohio State University College of Nursing, Columbus.

Accepted for publication June 23, 2017.

The authors would like to thank Dr. Karen Pridham for her critical review of the article. This work was supported by the National Institutes of Health National Research Service Award, F31NR014985, and a postdoctoral fellowship from the NINR, 1T32NR015433-01. The Epsilon Chapter of Sigma Theta Tau; Ohio Nurses Foundation; Sigma Theta Tau International in partnership with the Midwestern Nursing Research Society; the National Association of Neonatal Nurses Small Grants program; AWHONN and the Every Woman, Every Baby Campaign; and The Ohio State University Graduate School’s Alumni Grants for Graduate Research and Scholarship also supported this research.

Editorial Note: The paper was accepted under the editorship of Susan J. Henly.

The authors have no conflicts of interest to disclose.

Corresponding author: Ashley Weber, PhD, RN, Frances Payne Bolton School of Nursing, Case Western Reserve University, 2120 Cornell Road, Cleveland, OH 44106 (e-mail:

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