The bonding process between a mother and her baby has been well researched along with the influence she has on her child’s life. However, when it comes to fathers, their bonds and their impact on the formative years of their children’s lives, science is playing catch up.
With Father’s Day approaching it is a good time to shine a spotlight on the science of a father’s bond. The hormonal rollercoaster of an expectant dad. The science behind the bonding process between mother and child is fairly commonly known and understood. What many people don’t realise is that there is usually a definite and undeniable bond formed between a father and his child also, not just emotionally, as we can all attest to, but biologically too.
Any pregnant woman can describe the hormonal roller coaster of pregnancy and birth. However, researcher has shown that expectant fathers can also experience hormonal changes around the birth of their child. These changes begin to emerge as the birth approaches.
Studies have reported a drop in levels of testosterone in many men during the weeks leading up to the birth of their child. In fact, these studies shown that, on average, a man’s testosterone levels will drop by as much as 34 percent when he becomes a father.
Scientists are still unsure why these drops in testosterone occur. It may be that lower levels shift the focus of the expectant father or allow other hormone levels to increase.
Oxytocin and dopamine are associated with the bonding process of mother and baby. Prolactin is associated with milk production in new mums. These three hormones are now also known to increase in fathers. Oxytocin and dopamine are assumed to give new dads the same neurochemical rewards new mothers receive, helping in the bonding process in a similar way. In studies where fathers were given oxytocin they showed an increase in active play and interaction with their babies.
Male prolactin levels increase coming up to the birth. In general, fathers have higher prolactin levels than men with no children, and levels of this hormone are found higher in fathers of young children than those of older children.
It is still unclear as to the reasons for these hormonal changes in fathers. Research is still ongoing to determine the role they play in forming and strengthening the male parental bond. They may help in calming fathers, increasing their sensitivity to the smell and touch of their young children, helping them meet their needs. Interestingly, some studies have reported that increases in hormones like oxytocin spike after different activities in both men and women. For mums it is while feeding and nurturing, while for dads, this neurochemical high is often notices after play and interaction with their child.
It is not only the hormones of new dads that seem to alter significantly when a baby comes along, their brains change too. MRI studies on new parents have shown increased activity in specific areas for both mothers and fathers. Not only that, these specific areas of the brain actually increase in size in the first number of months after birth.
Whatever the reasons it seems having a child changes a father on emotional, physiological and mental levels. Fathers don’t need to see the research to agree that this is true. Despite the rollercoaster I’m sure they will also agree that they wouldn’t have it any other way.