About to be a Father? How Hormones Will Affect Your Parenting

Written by Dr. Jonathan Peterson, Updated on March 21st, 2022, Published on March 7th, 2022

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Is it really true that new fathers are not able to bond with their children like the mothers do – almost instantly? Moms tend to take on almost 100% of the care of the newborn, especially if breastfeeding, but this doesn’t mean that the father cannot or will have trouble bonding with their son or daughter. In fact, men’s hormones prepare men for their new and important role as a parent.

It’s a Cultural Myth that Dads Can’t Bond with Their Children

People seem to think that because our ancestors usually had the mothers staying home, taking care of the children and keeping the fires going, with the men out hunting for food, that fathers do not play a big role in child rearing or basic care. However, this is just not true. We know this because of hormones and what happens physiologically in a man’s body once his child is born.

Our hormones control so many aspects of our lives, including mood, fertility and muscle growth. The hormone involved with love and bonding with one’s offspring is oxytocin, also coined the “love hormone.” This hormone floods the woman’s body during pregnancy, labor and delivery (to help cope with pain as well) and while breastfeeding. Oxytocin is also involved in attachment and love when bonding with a significant other and during sex.

Oxytocin Peaks During “Rough-and-Tumble” Play with Children

In 2010, a study was conducted in Israel that showed oxytocin levels peaking during “rough-and-tumble” play for Dads when playing with the baby. The researchers believe that because the hormone is released in women during nurturing and in men during play, that conditions children to come to Mom for comforting and Dad for fun and excitement.

In 2021, Oxford University anthropologists discovered that testosterone levels decrease when a baby is born and he is focusing on the family more than, say, work or hanging out with the boys. Testosterone is the hormone associated with sex and finding new, sexual partners for men. In fact, this finding reinforces the findings of another anthropologist, Lee Gettler, from a decade prior. Gettler followed 600 men for five years straight, tracking their levels of testosterone as they got older. He found that when a man became a dad, no matter what his age, his testosterone levels dipped right after the baby was born, literally the day after.

Hormones Increase Empathy in New Dads

The same Israeli researchers from before found that the hormones caused new responses in the brain in areas that we know are associated with empathy, or the ability to understand and share the feelings of others. In women, brain changes occurred in areas associated with care and nurture and in men it was on the outer surface of the brain associated with planning and problem-solving.

All of this research could be incredibly helpful with helping new parents acclimate to their new and different life with a newborn, and then an infant and a rambunctious toddler in their future. In fact, women are not the only ones who can suffer from depression after the birth of a baby. Since typically fathers are not involved as much as the mother when the baby comes home, he can feel excluded and have no support from others with all of the changes. Many men start to binge drink or overeat – engaging in harmful coping strategies.

Let's hope that future research can help us to shed some light on what men need when becoming a father and how to help them avoid depression and lack of inclusion in the family.

Reference

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