Fundamental to the case that the father-child bond should be supported is the biology and neurobiology of fatherhood. We advocate that the father-child bond should be supported and that the role of the father is not just as a helper of the mother, nor just a social/moral responsibility.
We have produced a very brief overview of the biology of fatherhood.
When fathers are more engaged in caring for their babies, they experience stronger hormonal and neurobiological changes; they typically express feelings of love and tenderness. These changes are, in turn, associated with short and longer-term benefits for the infant.
The biology of fatherhood
- Oxytocin is associated with human sociality, including empathy, social collaboration, care of infants and romantic love. It increases in fathers as in mothers through physical contact such as skin-to-skin, and decreases less quickly than in mothers post skin-to-skin. (Cong et al, 2015) When fathers are administered oxytocin (via a nasal spray), they become more attuned to their baby and the baby’s own oxytocin levels also become higher and the baby’s social orientation and behaviour increase. (Abraham et al, 2016)
- Testosterone decreases in men when a baby is born. If the father is more involved in caring, the testosterone decreases more. (Gettler et al, 2015) Fathers with lower testosterone are more affectionate and sensitive towards their babies. (Weisman et al. 2014) Testosterone also drops more if the father is more committed to the relationship with the mother after the birth of the baby. In these couples, there are stronger correlations in testosterone levels between the mother and father. (Saxbe et al, 2017)
- Cortisol is commonly associated with stress, but not necessarily negatively. Fathers with higher cortisol levels are more alert and responsive to a baby crying. (Fleming et al, 2002) This increase in cortisol might help new parents pay attention to their baby’s signals. In contrast, higher cortisol levels in both mothers and fathers are associated with a poorer relationship between them. (Saxbe et al, 2015) Skin-to-skin care is associated with a drop in cortisol in fathers, as in mothers, with the effect being longer lasting in fathers post skin-to-skin. (Cong et al, 2015)
- Prolactin is associated with breastfeeding, but it increases in new fathers too. Experienced fathers exhibit increases in prolactin when they hear a baby crying. (Fleming et al, 2002) Prolactin levels are highest when babies are most needy and vulnerable. (Gettler, 2014)
The neurobiology of fatherhood
Neuroscience has identified two areas of the brain associated with caregiving and both can be activated in fathers like mothers, the more so the father cares for his baby. (Abraham et al, 2014; Rilling & Mascaro, 2017)
- The “emotional empathy” brain network. This network enables an automatic understanding of the baby’s mental state, allowing the parent to “feel” and experience in herself/himself the physical pain or emotional distress of the baby.
- The “socio-cognitive” brain network. This is a later developing circuit, including cortical and frontal brain areas. It is associated with mentalizing, cognitive empathy, and social understanding. In relation to caring for an infant, it enables a parent to infer infant’s mental state from behaviour, to predict infant needs and plan future caregiving activities.
Actively caring fathers show greater activation in the “emotional empathy” brain network. When fathers engage in regular active day-to-day care of children – particularly in the extreme case when fathers raise their babies with no maternal involvement – they become as attuned and as sensitive to the baby’s cues as mothers do. (Abraham et al, 2014)
Longitudinal research has since found that emotional empathy brain activity in a father in year one is associated with better emotion regulation in the child four years later. Similarly, higher activity in the socio-cognitive brain network is associated with a child’s higher social skills four years later. (Abraham et al, 2017)
Abraham E, Hendler T, Shapira-Lichter I, Kanat-Maymone Y, Zagoory-Sharona O & Feldman R, Father’s brain is sensitive to childcare experiences PNAS 111, 2014
Abraham E, Hendler T, Zagoory-Sharon O & Feldman R Network integrity of the parental brain in infancy supports the development of children’s social competencies Social Cognitive and Affective Neuroscience, 2016
Abraham E, Hendler T, Zagoory-Sharon O & Feldman R (2016), Network integrity of the parental brain in infancy supports the development of children’s social competencies, Social, Cognitive, and Affective Neuroscience 11
Cong X, Ludington-Hoe SM, Hussain N, Cusson RM, Walsh S, Vazquez V, Briere C & Vittner D (2015), Parental oxytocin responses during skin-to-skin contact in pre-term infants, Early Human Development 91.7
Gettler LT (2014), Applying Socioendocrinology to Evolutionary Models: Fatherhood and Physiology, Evolutionary Anthropology 23.4
Gettler LT, McDade TW, Agustin SS, Feranil AB, Kuzawa CW (2015), Longitudinal perspectives on fathers’ residence status, time allocation, and testosterone in the Philippines, Adaptive Human Behavior and Physiology
Rilling JK & Mascaro JS (2017), The neurobiology of fatherhood, Science Direct 15
Saxbe DE, Adam EK, Schetter CD, Guardino CM, Simon C, McKinney CO, Shalowitz MU, Kennedy E (2015), Cortisol covariation within parents of young children: Moderation by relationship aggression, Psychoneuroendocrinology 62
Saxbe DE, Edelstein RS, Lyden HM, Wardecker BM, Chopik WJ & Moors AC (2017), Fathers’ decline in testosterone and synchrony with partner testosterone during pregnancy predicts greater postpartum relationship investment, Hormones and Behavior
Weisman O, Zagoory-Sharon O & Feldman R (2014), Oxytocin administration, salivary testosterone, and father–infant social behaviour, Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry 49
Photo: Chris Price. Creative Commons.