FI Research Summary: Dads and Hormones

7 November 2014

‘Making men into fathers’ is generally best achieved by providing substantial opportunities for caretaking right from the beginning

Father-infant bonding is stronger when dads develop their own ways of doing things.

Helping fathers as well as mothers to respond to infant-cues and develop quality interactions with their babies, toddlers and pre-schoolers, is very important.

Substantial research has found no biologically-based differences between the sexes in sensitivity to infants (for review, see Lamb et al, 1987) or in capacity to provide intimate care (for review see, Parke, 2008). Levels of ‘nurturing hormones’ (see below) are the same in men and women exposed to ‘infant stimuli’ before their babies are born (Storey et al, 2000) and when interacting with them afterwards (Feldman et al, 2010). Fathers’ responsiveness seems to vary depending on the degree to which they assume responsibility for the care of their infants (Lamb and Lewis, 2010).

It has long been known that fathers who undertake a lot of care bond more quickly with their babies and are likely to enjoy fatherhood more (Goodman, 2005; Barclay & Lupton, 1999; Henderson & Browse, 1991). But only relatively recently have researchers begun to understand the neuroendocrine and neurobiological changes brought about in human males (as in females) through proximity to infants and pregnant women, and through acts of caretaking. For example, we now know that:

  • within fifteen minutes of holding a baby, human males experience raised levels of hormones associated with tolerance/trust (oxytocin), sensitivity to infants (cortisol) and brooding/lactation/bonding (prolactin); and that
  • the more experienced a male is as a caregiver, the quicker and more pronounced are the hormonal changes (Atzil et al., 2012, Gray & Anderson, 2010).

Reports by fathers of pre-term infants, that the sooner they hold their babies, the sooner they experience feelings of warmth and love for them (Sullivan, 1999) may be related to such neurobiological changes.

Research into the relationship between testosterone levels and infant caretaking in males is also proving instructive:

  • Testosterone levels drop in men who co-reside with a pregnant female (Berg and Wynne-Edwards, 2001), possibly as a result of the increases in some of the hormones mentioned above.
  • Testosterone levels remain low after the birth (Gettler et al, 2011)and over the first year, reduced by about one third and found to be lowest in the dads actively involved in caretaking or co-sleeping with their babies (Gettler et al, 2013).
  • Low testosterone in males is connected with greater sensitivity to infants (Fleming et al, 2002) and may also bolster a male’s immune system, decreasing the chances of passing pathogens and infections to newborns (Bribiescas, 2013).

In rodents, complex brain changes have been found in both males and females that become parents and care for their ‘pups’. Such changes – flexible thinking, managing feelings and paying more attention to others – persist long after the pups are weaned, making active rodent parents of both sexes ‘smarter’ (Lambert, 2012). There is also mounting evidence that the very structure of the human brain is altered by the cognitive challenges inherent in learning how to parent (Rilling, 2013).

Download a PDF of this research summary: FI Research Summary Dads and Hormones



Atzil, S., Hendler, T., Zagoory—Sharon, O., Winetraub, Y. and Feldman, R., 2012. Synchrony and specificity in the maternal and the paternal brain: relations to oxytocin and vasopressin. Journal of the American Academy of Child and Adolecent Psychiatry, 51, pp.798-‐811

Barclay, L., and Lupton, D., 1999. The experiences of new fatherhood: a socio cultural analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(4), pp.1013-20.

Berg S.J. and Wynne-Edwards,K.E., 2001. Changes in testosterone, cortisol, and estradiol levels in men becoming fathers. Mayo Clinic Proceedings, .76(6), pp.582-92

Bribiescas, R.G., 2013.

Feldman, R., Gordon, I., Schneiderman, I., Weisman, O., and Zagoory-Sharon, O., 2010. Natural variations in maternal and paternal care are associated with systematic changes in oxytocin following parent-infant contact. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(8), pp.1133-41

Fleming, A.S., Corter., Stallings, J. and Steiner, M., 2002. Testosterone and prolactin are associated with emotional responses to infant cries in new fathers. Hormones and Behavior, 42(4), pp.399–413

Gettler, L.T., McDade, T.W., Agustin, S.S., Feranil, A.B. and Kuzawa, C.W., 2013. Do testosterone declines during the transition to marriage and fatherhood relate to men’s sexual behavior? Evidence from the Philippines. Hormones and Behavior, 64(5), pp.755-763.

Gettler, L.T., Feranil, A., McDade, T.W. and Kuzawa, C.W., 2011. Longitudinal evidence that fatherhood decreases testosterone in human males. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 108(29), pp.16194-16199

Goodman, J.H., 2005. Becoming an involved father of an infant. Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing, 34(2), pp.190-200.

Gray, P.B., and Anderson, K.G., 2010. Fatherhood: Evolution and Human Paternal Behavior. Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press

Henderson, A. D, and Brouse, A. J., 1991. The experiences of new fathers during the first 3 weeks of life. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 16(3), 293–298

Lamb, M.E. and Lewis, C., 2010. The development and significance of father-child relationships in two- parent families. In Michael E. Lamb (ed), The Role of the Father in Child Development. 5th ed. Hoboken, NJ: Wiley (pp. 94-153).

Lamb, M..E., Pleck, J.H., Charnov, E.L. and Levine, J.A., 1987. A biosocial perspective on paternal behavior and involvement. In J. B. Lancaster, J. Altman, and A. Rossi (eds), Parenting across the lifespan: Biosocial perspectives (pp. 111-142). New York: Academic Press.

Lambert, K.G., 2012. The parental brain: transformations and adaptations. Physiology & Behavior, 107(5), pp.792–800

Rilling, J.K., 2013. The neural and hormonal bases of human parental care. Neuropsychologia,, 51(4), pp.731-47

Sullivan, J.R., 1999. Development of father-infant attachment in fathers of preterm infants. Neonatal Network, 18(7), pp.33-39


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