Endogenous oxytocin released into the brain at parturition may stimulate the onset of maternal behaviour. In this study an attempt was made to block spontaneous maternal behaviour following natural delivery in Wistar rats by the injection of an antagonist of oxytocin into the cerebral ventricles. The analogue antagonist, d(CH2)5-8-ornithine-vasotocin, was administered by injection into a chronically implanted cannula in the right lateral ventricle at hourly intervals, beginning immediately after the expulsion of the first pup. The antagonist did not interfere with the normal progress of parturition or birth-related behaviours.
After delivery of the last pup, mothers rested for 40 min in the test cage with the pups having been removed. Four pups and standard nesting material were then presented. Latency to pup carrying and duration of pup manipulation, nest building, and time spent on the nest with the pups, as well as duration of autogrooming and general activity were determined. Saline-injected controls started gathering the pups immediately and usually showed all elements of maternal behaviour within 10 min. Antagonist-treated mothers showed a marked delay in the onset of pup grouping and other maternal behaviours. At the end of 1 h, two out of six mothers had not yet picked up a single infant. Pups left overnight with their mothers were gathered into the nest and suckled, and no long-term effects of the antagonist were evident on retesting.
The effectiveness of oxytocin antagonist in suppressing the rapid onset of post-partum maternal behaviour supports the hypothesis that centrally released oxytocin is involved in this process. It is noteworthy that these effects were obtained in Wistar rats, a strain in which oxytocin has failed to accelerate responsiveness to pups in virgin females.