Bonding With Babies

How hormones influence male parenting

| 04 Mar 2022 | 03:16

It’s a fairly well-known view that it may take two to make a baby, but once the deed is done and delivered, one of the pair seems to take a hike and not just to the drugstore for diapers.

Women, we are told, feel an instant bond of love with the newborn while men just stand there looking on. But that’s a myth based on centuries of cultural acclamation keeping Mom home to tend the fire while Dad went out to capture food.

Now, an entire decade of new studies says this shortchanges everyone: Mom, Dad and baby.

Biologically and psychologically, we are ruled by our hormones. The important one here is oxytocin, commonly known as the love hormone. Made in the human brain when we are sexually excited and in love, oxytocin also floods the female body during pregnancy, delivery and when nursing a newborn. For men, a 2010 Israeli study showed peak levels during “rough-and-tumble” Dad and baby play, leading the researchers to theorize that the differing responses condition children to reach out for Mom for comfort and Dad for excitement.

Moving on, in 2021 anthropologists at Oxford University found that testosterone, the primary male hormone that motivates men to find sexual partners, dips when a baby is born and being a successful father means focusing inward on the family. This confirms what Northwestern anthropologist Lee Gettler reported ten years earlier. Having followed 600 men for five years, tracking normal age-related declines in testosterone, he discovered that, age aside, men who become Dads experience a 34 percent dip in testosterone when they because fathers. Right away. Like the day after the baby was born.

Brain Regions

As you might expect, all this hormonal activity affects the brain, where Israeli researchers discovered new responses in regions linked to empathy. For women, the changes occurred were close to the core space linked to care and nurture; for men, it was on the outer surface where cognitive functions – planning and problem-solving live.

This is all very new. So is the Pilot survey tracking the unique needs of new fathers run by Chicago Children’s Hospital pediatrician Craig Garfield, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) and the Georgia Department of Public Health. The study modeled on the CDC’s PRAMS (Pregnancy Risk Assessment Monitoring System), which measures the needs of new mothers. In the first two months after baby arrives, as many as one in four new fathers crash into depression.

Lacking support and feeling excluded from care of the infant, they also run into common coping non-solutions such as binge drinking and over-eating. Putting the pieces together, Garfield says, will “offer a roadmap of where we need to focus attention to improve the health and wellbeing of families during pregnancy and after a child is born.”

Politicians have taken note. While the federal Family and Medical Leave Act provides 12 weeks of unpaid work leave a year for public agencies and companies with more than 50 employees, and at least eight states (California, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Rhode Island, New York, Washington, Connecticut, and Oregon) have publicly funded parental leave, that normally mean maternity leave. Except in New York, which is clearly ahead of the crowd. Since 2016, the Empire State’s Paid Family Leave has covered both Mom and Dad. Last November, things got even better when Governor Kathy Hochul signed legislation to expand the program to cover siblings as of January 2023.

Because babies have mothers and fathers and brothers and sisters, too.