The Science of Fatherhood

I recently experienced a wonderful thing — my first Father’s Day as a father. It was a glorious test of real fatherhood, from a 4 am feeding to a doctor’s visit to us all taking a long afternoon siesta, his drool soaking my Sunday best shirt. It was perfect. Soon enough I’ll be getting Father’s Day soap-on-a-rope and tacky ties, but this was the real deal. Fatherhood so far has been a deeply satisfying experience, and Alex isn’t even rolling over yet. “Must be the hormones”, you say? We usually don’t think of fatherhood and hormones, but there’s actually a growing body of research which indeed does show many of the same physiologic responses to new fatherhood as we traditionally see with new mothers. For example, most of us have heard about oxytocin, the “love hormone”, rising in new moms. But research also showed similar rises in new dads as well:

…the findings revealed that oxytocin levels were associated with parent-specific styles of interaction. Oxytocin was higher in mothers who provided more affectionate parenting, such as more gazing at the infant, expression of positive affect, and affectionate touch. In fathers, oxytocin was increased with more stimulatory contact, encouragement of exploration, and direction of infant attention to objects. “It is very interesting that elevations in the same hormone were associated with different types of parenting behaviors in mothers and fathers even though the levels of oxytocin within couples were somewhat correlated. These differences may reflect the impact of culture-specific role expectations, but they also may be indicative of distinct circuit effects of oxytocin in the male and female brain,” commented Dr. John Krystal, Editor of Biological Psychiatry.

One Father’s Day article from NBC News covered some of this science nicely:

Researchers have found that emotionally involved fathers feel other hormonal effects: reduced levels of aggression-promoting testosteronehigher levels of prolactin, a lust-squelching hormone that shows up in women during breastfeeding and in men after sexual climax; and higher levels of vasopressin, a hormone linked to bonding as well as the maternal stress response. It turns out that fathers get many of the same rushes that mothers do from parenthood — but the payoff depends on proximity and interaction. For example, researchers see the effect if the child sleeps with the parents, if the father recognizes and responds to the baby’s cries, if Dad plays with the kids. When that proximity isn’t present, the fatherhood effect isn’t as strong. “There seems to be some kind of fundamental social-neurobiological framework that comes into play when fathers interact with their kids,” said Lee Gettler, an anthropologist at Notre Dame who worked on the prolactin study.

dad on the twins second birthday
My dad with us, at 2 years old. That’s me on the right (I think)

Fathers may not realize that their input and care is far more important than they realize. For example, as this excellent Scientific American article discusses, fathers play an extraordinary role in developing their child’s verbal skills:

In addition to emotionally preparing children for new challenges, fathers help bolster their cognitive capacities—in particular, their verbal skills. In a 2006 study psychologist Lynne Vernon-Feagans of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and her colleagues studied family triads—two-year-olds in free play with both their mothers and their fathers. They found that the fathers were far less verbal with their children, speaking fewer words and taking fewer conversational turns than the mothers. And yet the researchers found that fathers’ language use—but not mothers’—independently predicted their children’s language development at age three. The larger the variety of word roots that fathers used with their two-year-old children—where, for instance, “talk” and “talked” were counted as a single word root—the better the kids scored on a standard test of expressive language a year later. The size of a mother’s vocabulary seemed to have no effect on children’s scores.

Fathers also play a crucial role in pushing their children against their comfort zone more than mommy would:

A father’s predilection for training his kids to be physically tougher and more daring suggests to some researchers that fathers open kids up to new experiences to help prepare them for future life challenges. A neat bit of research from 1995 encapsulated this idea. While studying the behavior of parents who had enrolled their one-year-olds in an infant swimming class, investigators found that fathers tended to hold their babies so they faced out into the water, whereas the mothers stood in front of their children, establishing face-to-face contact.

And here’s a nice summary of the importance of fatherhood from the same article:

Kids who have stable and involved dads are better off on nearly every cognitive, social and emotional measure researchers can devise. For instance, high levels of father involvement are associated with children who are more sociable, confident and self-controlled and less likely to act out in school or engage in risky behaviors in adolescence.

I also just read another interesting take on the importance of fatherhood as well as the real differences in parenting between the sexes. This research article had studied families of obese teenagers and tried to ascertain which parenting messages helped their kids lose the most weight. Their major take-home message was fascinating: only healthy eating discussions helped, while talking about weight loss and dieting was counter-productive. But the other fascinating tidbit involved the dads: no matter which message they gave their child, the teen’s outcomes didn’t improve:

Fathers’ voices on the diets versus healthful eating issue carried particular weight. While most of the parents and caregivers who reported conversations with their child were women, researchers were able to survey fathers of roughly half of the kids to see how they spoke to their kids on the subject. Compared with kids whose fathers were silent on the subject or who championed healthful eating, adolescents whose dads talked about weight loss and diets showed an even greater likelihood of engaging in unhealthful weight-loss behaviors. These findings suggest that parents should avoid conversations that focus on weight or losing weight and instead engage in conversations that focus on healthful eating, without reference to weight issues, the authors write. This approach may be particularly important to parents of overweight or obese adolescents. And dads? Whether or not their kids are overweight, the researchers suggested, they should probably just shut up. “It may be important to educate fathers to avoid any form of weight-related conversation with their adolescents,” the authors added.

I’m a bit put off by that last synopsis and have no intention of not trying to guide my child’s health if he becomes overweight. But it’s yet another study which proves the unique influence that fathers have as they raise their children. In general, all this research makes me even more excited to be deeply involved with raising my little Alex, and I am both humbled and honored to have such a task.

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