Fathers’ testosterone drops when comforting their crying baby: more if they are a sensitive parent

fathers baby testosterone

Thanks to Child & Family Blog for permitting reproduction of this article.

Researchers measured the changes in testosterone in fathers in a situation where their 12 month old baby was separated from them in an unfamiliar room for a few minutes, started crying and was reunited with the father (the “Strange Situation” Test). Testosterone levels in the father dropped in this situation on average. This was expected – many other laboratory studies where fathers are exposed to the sound of a crying baby show the same. Other research has shown that the regions of the brain activated by a crying baby are related to attention and emotion.

They then found that the testosterone drop was more for fathers who were more sensitive parents. They measured sensitivity by observing the father for 15 minutes teaching their 12 month old to play a game that the baby could only achieve with his help – trained observers looked at the father’s behaviour, rating things like warmth, disapproval, control, and detachment.

Patty Kuo, Brenda Volling (University of Michigan), and colleagues worked with 175 fathers of 12 month old babies. They measured testosterone levels via a saliva sample.

Testosterone levels did not change when the father was playing with the baby, only when the baby was crying. Other research has shown that parents react to a baby crying more than to a baby laughing. (Meanwhile non-parents react more to a baby laughing than to a crying baby.)

The researchers also explored three other things in the 175 families:
– how the fathers rate their relationship with the mother (a 25 item questionnaire)
– how much care of the child the fathers do (interviews with both parents during a home visit)
– how empathic and prone to anxiety the fathers are, for example, how they react in an emergency situation (a questionnaire)

They found that fathers were more sensitive to their baby while teaching them the game when:
– the baby was a girl
– their testosterone levels dropped more in the Strange Situation Test
– the relationship with the mother was better, in particular how much the fathers said they loved the mother
– the fathers were more prone to anxiety in a stressful situation

The amount of care provided by the fathers did not seem to make much of a difference, but the sample did not include many fathers who were the main carers, so more research would be needed to learn more about this.


Kuo PX, Saini EK, Thomason E, Schultheiss OC, Gonzalez R & Volling BL (2015), Individual variation in fathers’ testosterone reactivity to infant distress predicts parenting behaviors with their 1-year-old infants, Developmental Psychobiology

Photo: Selbe Lynn. Creative Commons.