Samantha Lee/Business Insider
I was clueless the first time my baby made me feel high.
My wife and I were headed out the door on a beautiful summer day, and I was carrying our then 2-month-old daughter in a harness, her squishy baby belly pressing against my chest while she grew heavy with sleep.
Suddenly, as I stepped into the shade of our tree-lined street, it hit me: an incredibly warm, melty glow of euphoria. It began in my heart and rushed through every appendage, leaving me giddy yet deeply at peace — and on the verge of tears. Everything seemed to slow down. I almost stopped to catch my breath.
It was powerful, and it was weird. Yet at the time I wrote it off as internalizing a nice moment: My wife and I had started a family, I was a dad, and it felt amazing.
But my next moment of ooey-gooey euphoria couldn’t have been less sentimental.
The weather was hot and muggy. I was sweaty, frazzled, and running late. Into the harness my daughter went — bawling. There it was again, though, washing over me again after a few minutes of carrying her, and this time even more strongly.
“I feel high and my baby is the drug,” I thought.
Strong feelings of bonding and love are well-known to me. I’ve shared plenty with family and friends throughout my life, most recently when I cuddle my wife or (with apologies to my wife) our dog. That close contact can trigger a satisfying, heartfelt glow.
I’ve also felt the euphoria of getting drunk and have, on a few rare occasions, experimented with marijuana and felt its mood-boosting effects. And when my dentist yanked out my wisdom teeth, he prescribed me hydrocodone (also known as Vicodin) — an opiate pain reliever that made me feel happy, floaty, and disconnected.
The feeling my daughter uniquely and almost instantly triggers is one apart from all of the above. While not as powerful as a drug, it isn’t a far cry, either. The “baby high,” as I call it, hits me like a freight train from Rainbow Happy Land. Every time. It enhances my feeling of living in the moment while engaging a grab-bag of pleasureable senses, each of which feels far stronger than any feel-good buzz I have ever felt from social interaction. And apparently it lacks side effects — no sad comedown, no aloofness, no confusion, no irritability.
I enjoy it so much that I started carrying our daughter around in the harness as often as I could, including while vacuuming the apartment. (Pro tip: This is a great way to get fussy infants to fall asleep.)
And I occasionally got testy with my wife when she insisted — for perfectly valid reasons — that we put our daughter in the stroller instead of the harness.
This might seem unsurprising and obvious: “A parent who loves the feeling of holding his baby close? And craves it? Duh.”
But no parents I’ve met openly mentioned this euphoric surge. Why does it happen — even when I’m in a terrible mood? Why haven’t I felt it until now? Do all parents feel it? And how does it work, exactly?
After speaking with experts and trawling for relevant scientific studies, I learned the baby high is real, but that no simple explanations exist.
I found some alluring clues, though.
For one, babies can subtly hack the biochemistry of their parents, even before they’re born. (At least with biological parents — we don’t know enough about the changes that may occur in non-biological parents to make any conclusions yet.) Such changes may tune the brain’s deeply rooted pleasure center to reward parenting behaviors.
“Nature’s goal is to get you addicted to the baby,” Maia Szalavitz, a science journalist who co-authored a book about the science of bonding, called “Born for Love“, told Business Insider. “Addiction, in fact, is what happens when this [reward] system gets attached to a drug rather than a person.” (Szalavitz has also written extensively about her own experiences with addiction and recently authored a book on the topic, called “Unbroken Brain”.)
I also learned the baby high may be more of a spectrum.
“It’s like a drug and calms me,” said one relative and mother, who said she feels it as strongly as I do, in an email. “This is also similar to what women feel when they are breast-feeding.”
Conversely, my wife only sort of feels it. A subtle and warm “gushy” feeling bubbles upwhen she’s breastfeeding, and a slightly stronger one when our daughter falls asleep in her arms. But she said neither sensation seems worth writing home about.
Other parents don’t seem to feel it at all. At a recent family party, I described the sensation to one dad, who was carrying his toddler-age daughter — he said he had no idea what I was talking about. And a mom wrote, “[U]uuhhh no?” in response to my open query on Twitter:
Parents: Does carrying your baby (e.g. BabyBjorn) make you feel high — i.e. a “lock-and-key” euphoria? Like you just smoked something?
— Dave Mosher (@DaveMosher) October 31, 2016
I even asked a couple of brain researchers with kids if they’ve ever felt it. “[M]uch as I would love to experience what you describe, I have not,” James K. Rilling, a father of two who studies the neuroscience of social behavior at Emory University, told Business Insider in an email.
Scientists have no doubt the baby high exists, though, even if they know little about it.
“There are not a ton of studies on this,” Heather Caldwell, a hormone biologist at Kent State University who studies how biochemistry regulates behavior, told Busines Insider. “Maybe you hung out with kids before and you didn’t get that feeling. There’s something special about fatherhood, though maybe not for all men. We don’t really know yet.”
Here’s what we do know about the baby high, how it might work, and a surprising if not controversial reason we may understand it so poorly.
An ancient and powerful reward system
Every emotion or feeling we experience originates in the brain.
Some of these affective experiences manifest in the mind’s outermost “thinking” layers, called the neocortex. While standing on a mountaintop, you might pause to consider how lucky you are not to be working, then feel elated at your freedom. Or we may trigger our own stress and grief when we ponder a coworker’s recent silence toward us, deciding it’s hostility or cold disregard.
Then there are more deeply rooted, automatic, and instinctive experiences. It feels good to laugh or have sore muscles massaged. It hurts to get cut, pricked, or punched. The slither of a snake (or what we think is a snake) out of the corner of our eyes makes us fearful and alert.
The baby high may have more in common with the latter, since parenting instincts are so reflexive in mammals.
During a key experiment in the 1990s, for example, researchers damaged the neocortex of female hamsters after birth but spared deeper brain structures. Surprisingly, these hamsters could still breed and effectively parent their offspring.
However, when the researchers damaged a more central brain region called the limbic system, which is the source of emotions and pleasure (among other things), the hamsters’ maternal behaviors — like nest-building, picking up pups, and nursing — never developed.
One of the limbic system’s most crucial parts is a reward pathway called the mesolimbic dopamine system. Its core function is to cherry-pick activities (like eating, having sex, or playing with kids), and make them feel good. It also drives neurons to grow to motivate us to feel the good sensations again, plus avoid any bad ones.
The key to making it all work is dopamine. The chemical tells individual neurons to fire off a signal or not, influencing other brain signals and pathways, and essentially serves as a traffic cop of motivation, emotion, and social behavior.
There’s a powerful partner to dopamine, though: opioids. These pain-relieving chemicals are also made by the limbic system, and they trigger the release of dopamine.
“Having too much dopamine in the wrong place can make you psychotic. Illicit drugs that dump loads of dopamine (or strongly inhibit its reuptake, which is similar to dumping loads of dopamine) include cocaine and methamphetamines,” Dr. Emily Deans wrote at Psychology Today. “Therefore high amounts of dopamine can cause euphoria, aggression and intense sexual feelings.”
Which might help explain the nature of the baby high.
“There are lots of social situations that are very rewarding, including food. But there are some new dads that have the same pathways activated as drugs,” Caldwell says.
This is why a few scientists I spoke with think holding my daughter releases a lot of natural opioids in my brain — which in turn releases a lot of dopamine, triggering a warm-and-mushy euphoria.
But why don’t all of my friends and family members feel it while holding my daughter? And conversely: Why, after holding a small army of nieces and nephews, am I only now able to experience the baby high?
Part of the answer may be that pregnancy and, more importantly, caring for babies full-time, hacks the biochemistry and brains of parents.
Pregnancy seems to rub off on expectant dads
Hormonal changes during pregnancy are often talked about only in the context of women. But if you’re an expectant father living with your pregnant partner, your hormone levels are almost certainly changing, too.
Scientists don’t yet know how this works, only that it happens.
Moms might give off airborne molecules called pheromones that spur changes in the biochemistry of dads. Or the extra empathy and attention fathers (hopefully) pay toward their partners might change their hormone levels. Or significant dips or boosts in sexual activity. Or the shared stress of trying to make way for a new family member. Or some mix of the above.
And while hormones don’t directly cause people to feel or behave a certain way, they do grease the wheels for certain experiences and motivations. This is why some scientists think male hormonal changes associated with a pregnancy might help prepare men for fatherhood (and in my case, contribute to the strong buzz I feel while holding my baby).
Moms see very dramatic hormonal changes during pregnancy, primarily in estrogen, a female sex hormone that helps grow the uterus and powers maternal behaviors, and progesterone, which helps grow the breasts and softens ligaments, including those of the cervix. Levels of each can skyrocket more than 20, 30, or 40 times before a baby is born.
While hormonal changes in dads are much smaller, they’re nothing to sneeze at.
For example, a 2001 study compared the hormone levels of Canadian fathers-to-be to those of single men. Researchers found that an expectant dad’s levels of testosterone, which helps regulate sex drive and metabolism in men, was about 1/3 lower than average. And about 2/3 of dads had higher levels of estrogen, compared with 1/2 of single men in the study.
A more recent 2014 study of a few dozen men and their expectant partners also saw the testosterone dip, but instead saw estrogen levels in dads fall just before birth. (Hormone levels fluctuate often, so this wasn’t totally unexpected.) It also found a correlation in changing progesterone levels between men and their partners.
Expecting fathers also tend to see a boost in a hormone called prolactin.
“It’s mostly associated with women for milk production,” Caldwell said. “But it does come up in dads right before their partner gives birth. We don’t know what it’s doing in men, though your behaviors can also change your hormones.” (One study suggests higher prolactin levels helps dads be more attentive to infant cries.)
But nothing really compares to the effect that newborn babies can have on parents.
Babies hack our brains
Things get really nuts once a baby arrives, chemically speaking, and this may further “prime” my reflexive baby high.
The hormones in mom that helped keep her pregnancy going (like estrogen and progesterone) suddenly plummet, while others related to maternal behaviors (like prolactin) rise dramatically. These shifts prime mom’s brain for significant changes and, as researchers are increasingly discovering, dads too. (Also like moms, rapid hormonal changes in dads can raise the risk for postpartum depression.)
Vasopressin in mammalian fathers is one example. While there’s hardly any research yet on the hormone in human dads, findings elsewhere in the animal kingdom are strong and suggestive that it works in a similar way in people.
Just look at prairie voles and marmosets. Along with humans, they’re among the 5% share of all mammals that biparent, or when both mom and dad tend to care for their offspring. (Dad is always out of the picture in the other 95% of mammalian species.)
In both prairie voles and marmosets, vasopressin jumps after offspring are born and is correlated with nurturing behaviors.
AP Photo/Emory University, Todd Ahern
A 1994 study, for instance, showed that injecting vasopressin into single male prairie voles made them act just like dads. Instead of ignoring a litter of pups, the bachelor voles cuddled, groomed, and protected the pups. (Male voles injected with a saline solution didn’t show any daddy-like tendencies.)
Likewise in marmosets, receptors for vasopressin in experienced dads were far more numerous compared to non-dads. This suggests there’s a lot of the hormone floating around in their brains, possibly helping to explain their paternal instincts.
A similar trend likely exists in human fathers, to the point some researchers think elevated levels of vasopressin in dads helps explain why they tend to be more tactile and stimulatory with infants as opposed to soothing and comforting (as is more typical with moms).
“I think of vasopressin as something that promotes the animal being active, brave, and investigating things,” Karen Bales, a behavioral neuroscientist at the University of California at Davis, told Susan Kuchinskas at the Huffington Post.
Dads also see a boost in the hormone oxytocin after birth, even though it’s a bigger player in moms. The hormone first surges in women during birth, helping coax their breasts to produce milk. Oxytocin levels also go up in mom and baby each time they breastfeed.
While not really a “cuddle chemical”, as is often written, the hormone does seem important in weaving the social tapestry of people and their children. (But context is important; oxytocin plays a bewildering number of roles in animals, and possibly some nefarious ones in humans.)
“Oxytocin can facilitate a bond between mother and infant, and it may also play a role in fathers,” Caldwell said.
And, as it turns out, increased levels of vasopressin and oxytocin lubricate the brain’s reward system — and feelings of pleasure — for social interaction.
“Babies can elicit oxytocin release and we know that the oxytocin system interacts with the dopamine reward system,” Rilling said. “Excess dopamine (as with cocaine use) can lead to euphoria, so perhaps oxytocin-mediated dopamine release is responsible for the feeling you describe.”
Caldwell agreed, adding the “full sequence” of events is a mystery. “How it does that, we just don’t know,” she said.
We’re also left without an explanation as to why some parents don’t feel the baby high, or do so in different ways or to a different extent.
So there’s undoubtedly much more to the story.
Getting a true answer will be difficult — and possibly controversial
Unfortunately, clearly and logically explaining the basis of any behavior, emotion, or sensation is never simple, no matter how primal the human experience in question may seem.
That’s because the brain is involved, and — as an astoundingly complex network of 100 billion cells and their 100 trillion connections — the organ does not easily loose its secrets.
Even if our minds could tell us how they work, they are ultra-idiosyncratic when it comes to affective experience. This is because whether you personally feel something and the way that you feel it, Szalavitz said, “depends to some degree on how you were parented and early life stress.”
So while my quest to understand the nature of a powerful, lock-and-key euphoria I call the “baby high” might seem silly, researchers told me the mystery does intersect with two gravely important and possibly interconnected issues facing our society today.
One relates to addiction and its close siblings, depression and suicide.
Our brain’s reward system is a gift that drives natural pleasures and motivations, like cuddling, raising kids and baby highs. But for nearly 2 million Americans with a prescription opioid drug disorder — also called the opioid epidemic — it has also become a trap with few meaningful treatment options.
“The reason people get addicted to opioids is because they carry the message of social bonding,” Jaak Panksepp, a neuroscientist who studies psychiatric disorders and behavior, told Business Insider. “Too much psychological pain, too much social loss, we’ve argued for a long time, has fueled opioid addiction. It is people self-medicating themselves for depression and psychological pain.”
Our culture’s stigma against addiction since the 1970s, says Panksepp, hadn’t made it easy to investigate solutions, nor has a dearth of government funding. That includes his team’s most recent study of a withdrawal-free antidepressant opioid, called buprenorphine (which is normally prescribed to help treat heroin addictions).
Despite the study’s potential to show buprenorphine “could become the first fast-acting anti-suicide drug,” as Business Insider previously reported, Szalavitz said “Panksepp was rejected by major journals when he tried to publish […] because [the manuscript] compared mother love to heroin.”
The other hot-button issue, says Caldwell, is getting lawmakers and employers to understand the importance of family bonding and attachment — something which feeds into the aforementioned issue.
“We should spend more time in this country focusing on family leave,” Caldwell said, and she doesn’t just mean mom.
“There’s more and more evidence that there’s big value to having fathers form strong bonds with their children,” she said. “And that requires something important: Spending time with their children.”
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