Key takeaways for caregivers
- The transition to fatherhood is accompanied by changes in the brain and hormones of fathers. These changes are likely related to new activities and routines that fathers engage in and develop.
- These brain-related and hormonal changes are functional: They support fathers’ sensitive responses to their infants’ needs.
- A new study using ultrasound imaging and feedback during pregnancy shows that positive father-child interactions can begin before birth.
The birth of a child is the birth of a father
The birth of the first child marks the transition to fatherhood in men’s lives. This is a developmental milestone, a new stage in adult life with unfamiliar tasks and responsibilities. The transition is more unusual for most men becoming fathers today than it was for their fathers and grandfathers.
Today, fathers in Western, industrialized countries are more actively involved in child care than fathers: a three- to six-fold increase in time than their own fathers typically did. How do men prepare for the life-changing event of fatherhood?
Hormonal changes in new fathers
The changes in hormonal levels in women who are pregnant and giving birth are unparalleled. It is necessary for housing and feeding the new person. In the transition to fatherhood, men also undergo hormonal changes, although they are not as significant as those experienced by women.
From about four weeks before the birth of their first child to about five weeks after the birth, the men’s levels of testosterone, vasopressin, and cortisol decreased, and their levels of oxytocin slight increase. These hormones are involved in many activities.
Testosterone is relevant when we are daring and competitive, vasopressin makes us alert, cortisol helps us respond to unexpected situations and is high when we are under stress, and oxytocin is known as the love hormone but has many functions. : It helps us to recognize social signals, such as the emotions of others. it Hormonal changes in fathers can be considered practical for gentle companionship and sensitive baby care.
The perinatal period
But it can also be the opposite: During the perinatal period, new activities and routines of fathers can cause changes in hormone levels, which in turn support sensitive parenting.
For example, when fathers spend a few nights a week on the couch cuddling with their baby instead of playing football, their cortisol levels tend to drop and their oxytocin levels tend to increase. This, in turn, makes them more patient when the baby protests during diaper changes. This idea of caregiving routines leading to changes in hormonal levels is supported by new research on fathers’ brains.
Do men’s brains change when they become fathers?
There are (at least) three different ways to study the human brain to measure change:
- Brain structures
- Activity in brain areas
- Brain networks
1. Brain structures
The first is to look at brain structures, which appear to be brain hardware. Two studies found some changes in the brain structures of fathers in the first months after the birth of the child (Kim et al., 2014; Martínez-García et al., 2022), but another study did not find such changes (Hoekzema et al. ., 2016).
2. Activity in brain areas
A second way to study the brain is to look at the activity of brain areas in response to stimuli relevant to the child. Much of this research has focused on the sounds of babies crying because that is an intense and meaningful sound. In their first stage of life, this is the only way that children can attract the attention of their parents when they need something.
The transition to fatherhood is accompanied by changes in behavior, hormones, and the brain.
In fact, many regions of the brain are activated when we hear the sounds of crying. But having children makes a difference: Adults without children show increased activity in brain regions involved in cognitive processing when they hear babies crying, while adults with children show more emotional processing (Witteman et al., 2019).
3. Brain networks
While this second type of brain research focuses on separate brain regions, the third type of brain research looks at brain networks. For example, the parent brain network a system of regions that need to work together to support caring behavior.
New research shows no difference in this network between fathers during pregnancy and new fathers with a first-born child of about 2 months, but a striking finding for postnatal fathers time emerged: The more fathers are involved in the care of their children, the stronger. the connection of their parent brain network (Horstman et al., 2021). In other words, it doesn’t matter whether men have a child or not, but it matters how much care they take.
Play helps fathers connect with their babies
Fathers and mothers are alike and different in the way they interact with their children. In general, mothers do most of the care, such as feeding and bathing. When it comes to playing, fathers and mothers are more similar in the amount of time they spend playing or reading stories with their children. This means that when fathers and babies interact, it is usually in the context of play (Amodia-Bidakowska et al., 2020).
Play is a perfect way for fathers to get to know their child, and to see what they like, what their fears are, and how they overcome these fears with dad’s help. This is as rewarding for fathers as it is for childrenand it stimulates the attachment relationship (Monteiro et al., 2010).
Positive parenting for fathers begins with prenatal care
We stated earlier that the birth of a child is the birth of a father. In fact, parenting begins before the child is born. Fathers are influential during pregnancy – it affects prenatal development through their own health, and it influences the mental and physical health of pregnant mothers.
New research also shows that unborn babies are ready to bond with their fathers. Using ultrasound, we recorded how the children between 21St and 32n.d weeks of pregnancy responded when their fathers gently massaged the mothers’ stomachs, read from a children’s book, or sang for their child (De Waal et al., 2022).
Babies can hear sounds from outside the womb and recognize their father’s voice. They can remember rhythms and music during pregnancy and even after birth if they hear it regularly during pregnancy. As pregnancy progresses, the skin on mothers’ abdomens thins, there is less amniotic fluid, and the babies’ nervous systems develop, enabling them to feel and respond to touch.
Fathers’ care for their infants can promote hormonal and brain changes that support high-quality fathering.
In our research, we offered fathers three sessions of ultrasound-based interaction with their unborn baby. We see on the screen how the children respond when they fathers read them from children’s books or sang a lullaby. We used video-feedback review of ultrasound images to help them interpret their infants’ states, interactional responses (eg, thumb sucking when dad reads), and own initiatives (eg, pushing on the wall of the mother’s womb).
Fathers who received such prenatal video feedback were more sensitive to their infants’ play after birth (Buisman et al., 2022). The video feedback may have made these fathers more attuned to their infants, and may have prompted them to routinely check their infant’s face and other signals to adapt their own behavior or pace to those needs of the child.
How to support new fathers during the prenatal and postnatal period
Fatherhood has many dimensions. The transition to fatherhood is accompanied by changes in behavior, hormones, and the brain. The intensity of these changes depends in part on sociocultural norms and expectations for fathers.
Fathers sometimes feel at a disadvantage: Prenatal and perinatal care is focused on mothers, and fathers seem to be at a distance. While this is a great opportunity for medical examiners to expand the focus of ultrasounds to include possibilities for father-infant interaction, fathers can also create their own bonding moments. at home, talking to their babies and gently massaging their babies through their babies. partner’s skin. Mutual recognition can begin before birth.
Societies with parental leave for fathers encourage father involvement in early child care, giving fathers more opportunities to bond with their infants. In such contexts, changes in brains and hormonal levels are likely to be greater than in contexts where fathers have less opportunity to be actively involved in child care. Paternal leave enables fathers to develop a relationship with their children from the beginning, which is just one of the arguments for paid paternal leave.
In some families, opportunities for fathers to participate are limited because of mothers’ reluctance to trust fathers’ caregiving capacities. Called gatekeeping, this happens when mothers want to take care of the baby entirely on their own. It may be good to realize that fathers can be excellent caregivers, just like mothers, and that fathers’ care for their infants may promote hormonal and brain changes that support long-term quality fatherhood.