Summary and Keywords
For female mammals, caring for young until weaning or even longer is an extension of the reproductive burden that begins at insemination. Given the high price females potentially pay for failing to transmit genetic material to future generations, a multitude of interacting endocrine, neuroendocrine, and other neurochemical determinants are in place to ensure competent maternal caregiving by the time the offspring are born. Achieving this high maternal competency at parturition seems effortless but is quite a feat given that many nulliparous and parentally inexperienced female mammals are more prone to ignore, if not outright harm, conspecific neonates. There are important roles for ovarian steroids (e.g., estradiol and progesterone), adrenal steroids (e.g., glucocorticoids), and neuropeptide hormones (e.g., prolactin, oxytocin, arginine-vasopressin, and corticotropin-releasing factor) released during pregnancy, parturition, and postpartum in the onset and maintenance of caregiving behaviors in a broad range of commonly studied animals including rats, mice, rabbits, sheep, and primates. It is especially remarkable that the same collection of hormones influences caregiving similarly across these diverse animals, although to varying degrees. In addition to the well-known effects of hormones and neuropeptides on motherhood, more recent research indicates that experience-dependent epigenetic effects are also powerful modulators of the same neural substrates that can influence maternal responding.
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