by John Hoffman
People often talk about mothers and hormones. But, in the last few years we’ve learned a lot about the way hormones affect new fathers. And to cut to the chase, the story here is not just that guys have parenting hormones – which shouldn’t surprise anyone – it’s that men’s hormonal systems are flexible and responsive, ready to support whatever kind of parenting role and activity a father needs or wants to take on, including being the primary caregiver.
First, let’s clarify the role of hormones in human behaviour. People often talk as if hormones cause behaviour. But that’s not really true. Testosterone does not “cause” aggressive male behaviour any more than estrogen “makes” women sensitive. The hormone-behaviour connection is more a case of the brain detecting what a person needs to do, or is trying to do, and then telling the body to pump out the hormones that will help them do it.
Research has shown several ways in which this biological dynamic plays out in fathers. Some examples:
Compared to childless men, fathers have lower levels of “guy hormone” testosterone and higher levels of the “female hormone” estrogen.
Similar to women, men have elevated levels of the hormones cortisol and prolactin in the weeks just prior to the birth of their babies.
In one experiment, fathers with experience in baby care had bigger surges in prolactin (a hormone associated with nurturing behaviour and breastfeeding) than childless men in response to hearing a recording of a baby crying.
Filipino fathers who sleep in the same bed as their babies (a very common practice in that culture) have lower levels of testosterone than fathers who don’t co-sleep with their babies.
But, for me, the most interesting findings about dad hormones comes from the work of Israeli attachment researcher, Ruth Feldman. Feldman has documented that, like mothers, fathers experience increases in the hormone oxytocin after interacting with babies. Oxytocin has been called the “love hormone,” because it’s associated with bonding, mating and sex. In parenting, one key function of oxytocin is that it supports fathers’ (and mothers’) ability to tune into social cues. Obviously that is very important for parents trying to get to know and understand newly born babies.
Feldman’s research shows that while interaction with babies gets the oxytocin flowing for both genders, different types of interaction turn the tap on for dads and moms. For mothers it was affectionate touch (cradling, kissing, caressing etc.) that caused increases in oxytocin. But dads it was what the researchers called stimulatory touch – moving the baby around, more vigorous pats and strokes, playfully poking the baby with a toy or other object.
Very interesting. But what does it mean? Does it mean that moms are designed to be caregivers and men are designed to be playmates? I’ve never believed that. When I first read this study 3 years ago, I assumed that the Mom/Dad differences Feldman found mostly reflected the fact that play was the caregiving context in which fathers were most experienced (and comfortable). The mothers in this study were the primary caregivers, so they spent way more time in “caring mode.” The fathers, who all worked outside the home, spent less time with the babies and probably spent more of their baby time in play mode. Therefore play became the mode of interaction they were most comfortable with (see my last blog) and unconscious parts of their brains figured that out and worked behind the scenes to support it.
Last year, another of Feldman’s studies supported this idea. In this experiment, her team included a group of fathers who were primary caregivers. They chose men in gay parent couples, because they knew that at least one of the fathers had no choice but to be a primary caregiver. In this study, which also included primary caregiver mothers and fathers who were secondary caregivers, she did brain imaging to detect where in the brain the oxytocin was going. And she discovered that mothers and secondary caregiver fathers were using somewhat different brain pathways when interacting with babies and, to oversimplify, the brain knew where to send the oxytocin to support parenting behaviour in men and women. But in guys who were primary caregivers, brain activity was sort of in between what was happening in the mothers and secondary caregiver fathers. And their brains figured out how to send oxytocin to the right places.
So what does this boil down to?
1. We should pay as much attention to dad hormones as we do to mom hormones.
2. Male biology is ready to support a man who takes on a primary role in the care of a baby.
3. The brain is able to tell where to send hormones to support various types of fathering behaviour in men, depending on the nature of a father’s involvement and the way he and his baby interact together.
4. Involved fatherhood is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more you interact with your child, the more your brain and body will support you in doing that. Thus, as time goes on, interacting with your child will feel better and more and more natural.