Recent advances in the understanding of the biology of fatherhood are pointing to kangaroo father care or father-infant skin-to-skin care (SSC) as a potentially key trigger of family processes that benefit the health and welfare of infants, mothers and fathers themselves.
Father-infant SSC has been shown to influence the whole family system, with fathers investing more in family relationships and in the home. A recent literature review that we reported on this site recently has pulled together the evidence.
- Fathers become more caring and sensitive towards their infants (India) and talk more to them (Sweden).
- Fathers become more engaged at home after the birth (Colombia, Denmark, Sweden).
- The father’s relationship with the mother improves (USA, Sweden).
The same review demonstrates that father-infant SSC works for babies in the same way as mother-infant SSC – the baby’s body temperature, glucose levels and salivary cortisol all change in the same way.
Studies of human biology and neurobiology are providing an explanation for these observations. As in mothers, when a father cuddles a baby, oxytocin is produced. Other hormones change too: cortisol decreases, testosterone decreases and prolactin increases. These changes lead to fathers feeling less stressed and anxious (USA, Sweden) (Shorey et al., 2016). Father-infant massage has been found to be effective in improving fathers’ stress and depressive symptoms.
Neurobiological studies by Ruth Feldman and Eyal Abraham in Israel have shown that the brains of fathers who engage in intimate care of their babies change. The more the father cares, the more his brain changes in the way that a mother’s brain changes. Oxytocin is known to be an agent in these neurobiological changes. In just published research, giving fathers a nasal oxytocin spray increased brain patterns associated with caring. The Israeli researchers have recently found correlations between the brain changes in fathers and the child’s later social development. The team’s current research, yet to be published, is looking at how parents’ brains change during coparenting (when both parents are actively caring) and how this links to child outcomes.
These biological and neurobiological changes are not culture specific. They are universal human male characteristics. The extent to which these instincts are expressed, however, is culturally bound: patriarchal cultures tend to discourage father-infant interaction, assigning non-economic caring work to women.
So it is emerging that father-infant SSC triggers the caring instincts of men, leading to more caring, less aggression and more collaboration with the mother. The changes are long-term because the neurobiological changes that are stimulated are permanent: a man who has become attuned to caring for an infant will respond differently to any other infant for the rest of his life.
These processes correspond with findings from anthropology, which find that collaboration is a key characteristic of human parenting and has persistently involved men, though fatherhood is highly variable across time and territory. Improving any relationship in this “community of care” impacts positively on all the other relationships.
Teaching father-infant SSC, however, needs to be proactive. A recent Taiwanese study (Chen et al., 2016) observed what happens when fathers are given literature about father-infant SSC: very little! Literature does not work to break down social conventions. What worked was hands-on support specifically offered by health professionals, to enable fathers to gain confidence and competence – this approach changed behaviour, not literature alone.
Chen E-M, Gau M-L, Liu C-UY & Lee T-Y (2017), Effects of Father-Neonate Skin-to-Skin Contact on Attachment: A Randomized Controlled Trial, Nursing Research and Practice
Shorey S et al. (2016), Skin-to-skin contact by fathers and the impact on infant and paternal outcomes: an integrative review, Midwifery
Photo: Tokyo Butterfly. Creative Commons.