by Pam England
Human fathers are among less than six percent of mammals who play a significant role in rearing offspring, along with pygmy marmosets, bat-eared foxes, silverback mountain gorillas, and arctic wolves.1
Over the past 20 to 30 years, the role of fathers has changed dramatically from provider and disciplinarian to sharing the hands-on tasks of caretaking and emotional nurturing. Even so, many fathers (and their partners, too) believe that fathers are not as biologically and psychologically capable or ready for caretaking their infants as are women. What do you think?
Anna Machin, an anthropologist who studies human fatherhood at the University of Oxford, and other researchers are changing our limiting assumptions about fathers as parents.2
Fathers Brains Change in Early Postpartum
To understand changes in fathers’ brains during early postpartum, Pilyoung Kim, a developmental neuroscientist at the University of Denver, conducted a study in 2014. Sixteen fathers underwent two M.R.I.s of their brain, first between two to four weeks postpartum and again between 12 and 16 weeks. He discovered increases in gray and white matter volume in some regions of the brain (associated with attachment, nurturing, empathy, and the ability to interpret and react appropriately to a baby’s behavior) by 12 to 16 weeks were similar to those previously seen in new moms.
Dr. Kim thinks this bulking of the brain reflects the new skills that come with parenting a newborn — such as nurturing and understanding their baby’s needs — and the steep learning curve that new moms and new dads experience. Because men do not experience the hormonal surges that women experience during pregnancy and birth, the anatomical changes in the brain may support fathers’ gradual learning experience over many months.”
Forming an emotionally bond with their infant is an important part of becoming a father
New mothers and new fathers show activation in the brain regions linked with empathy and understanding of their child’s emotional state and behavior. However, other brain changes are different for moms and dads. A study by neuroscientists at Bar-Ilan University in Israel (2012) found that “the parts of the brain that light up the most are startlingly different for each parent. For moms, the most active regions enabled them to care for, nurture, and detect risk. But for dads, the parts that shone most brightly were located on the brain’s outer surface, activating more conscious cognitive functions, such as thought, goal orientation, planning, and problem-solving.4. Mothers showed higher amygdala activations and correlations between amygdala response and oxytocin. Fathers showed more significant activations in social-cognitive circuits, which correlated with vasopressin.5 The different areas of brain activation may reflect a difference in role, but both parents experience equally strong attachments.
Dads’ brains seem to have adapted in similar but different ways to ensure that they can bond with and care for their babies, despite not giving birth to them. Biological changes in the brain prime both mothers and fathers to demonstrate similar levels of motivation and attunement to their infant.—Shir Atzil, Ph.D. at Hebrew University of Jerusalem in Israel6
Ruth Feldman, a social neuroscientist based in Israel, published a study of 112 mothers and fathers in 2010, which found that peaks in oxytocin and dopamine occurred for women when they nurtured their children. In contrast, for men, the rise happened when they enjoyed rough-and-tumble play. In addition, young children’s brains seem to mimic the same oxytocin levels as their parents’ — meaning they get a similar blast of feel-good oxytocin when playing with Dad as when being nurtured by Mom. This influences the differences in parent-child relationships: kids are more likely to engage with each parent in the specific behavior that gives them oxytocin boost.7,8
Dads are equally tuned into their baby’s cries
Maternal instinct has been a topic of controversy. The general assumption is that “maternal instinct” makes moms naturally good (or better) at picking out their baby’s unique cry. However, a recent study suggests that dads are just as good as moms. To compare parents’ ability to identifying their baby’s cry, researchers asked 27 fathers and 29 mothers to pick out their baby’s cry from the cries of five infants. The crucial factor affecting this ability is the amount of time spent by the parent with their own baby. On average, both parents could detect their babies cry about 90 percent of the time; fathers did just as well as mothers.9
I am delighted to have just discovered this research. For too long I assumed that nature only provided one human parent with helpful brain changes and bursts of oxytocin and dopamine while learning to know and care for their newborn. I was eager to share this emerging research that confirms nature works with new fathers as kindly as new mothers to ensure the parents success with parenting.
- 1. Remarkable animal dads. https://www.worldwildlife.org/stories/5-remarkable-animal-dads
- 2. Anna Manchin How Men’s Bodies Change When They Become Fathers. originally published on June 13, 2019 in NYT Parenting. Published April 15, 2020 Updated June 24, 2021. https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/15/parenting/baby/fatherhood-mens-bodies.html
- 3. Pilyoung Kim, et al. “Neural plasticity in fathers of human infants.” Social neuroscience vol. 9,5 (2014): 522-35. doi:10.1080/17470919.2014.933713
- 4. Shir atzil, et al, (Aug 2012). Synchrony and Specificity in the Maternal and the Paternal Brain: Relations to Oxytocin and Vasopressin. Journal of Americal Academy of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry.51(8):798-811. DOI:10.1016/j.jaac.2012.06.008
- 5. Ibid.
- 6. Ibid.
- 7. Anna Manchin
- 8. Anna Manchin
- 9. Ruth Feldman, et al. “Parental oxytocin and early caregiving jointly shape children’s oxytocin response and social reciprocity.” Neuropsychopharmacology : official publication of the American College of Neuropsychopharmacology vol. 38,7 (2013): 1154-62. doi:10.1038/npp.2013.22
- 10. Gustafsson, E., Levréro, F., Reby, D. et al. Fathers are just as good as mothers at recognizing the cries of their baby. Nat Commun 4, 1698 (2013). https://doi.org/10.1038/ncomms2713
- 11. Ting Li, Horta M, Mascaro JS, et al. Explaining individual variation in paternal brain responses to infant cries. Physiol Behav. 2018;193(Pt A):43-54. doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2017.12.033