FI Research Summary: Fathers, care-taking and hormones

6 January 2014

Men are not ‘biologically’ less suited to caring for children than women:

• when similarly supported, both sexes develop childcare skills at the same rate (Myers, 1982)

• through what they learn they can have similarly positive effects on their children and on family functioning (Cia et al, 2010; Melnyk et al, 2006;. Firestone, Kelly & Fike, 1980; Adesso & Lipson, 1981)

• there seem to be no biologically-based differences between the sexes in capacity to provide intimate care (Parke, 2008)

• there seem to be no biologically-based differences between the sexes in sensitivity to infants (for review, see Lamb et al, 1987): fathers’ responsiveness seems to vary depending on the degree to which men assume responsibility for the care of their infants (Lamb and Lewis, 2010).

• in rodents, complex neurobiological modifications (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).

• In humans, levels of ‘nurturing hormones’ (see below) are found to be 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).


The act of caretaking causes hormonal changes in men (as in women) to facilitate caretaking:

• within fifteen minutes of holding a baby, men experience raised levels of hormones associated with tolerance/trust (oxytocin), sensitivity to infants (cortisol) and brooding/lactation/bonding (prolactin)

• the more experienced a male is as a caregiver, the quicker and more pronounced are the hormonal changes (for review, see Gray & Anderson, 2010; also Fleming et al, 2002)

• Possibly because of this, the sooner fathers of pre-term infants hold their babies, the sooner they report feelings of warmth and love for them (Sullivan, 1999)

• the more babycare that fathers do, the more satisfied and sensitive they tend to be (Goodman, 2005; Barclay & Lupton, 1999; Henderson & Browse, 1991).


Nurturing behaviour and nurturant-related hormones:

• in both sexes, these are linked with more positive parenting behaviours

• men with high prolactin levels respond to babies’ cries more alertly and positively than other men, and feel more sympathy for their distress (Fleming et al, 2002)

• fathers (including fathers of children with autism) who inhaled oxytocin via a nasal spray showed less hostility and stimulated their child’s exploration better than dads who had been given a placebo (Naber et al, 2010; 2013)

• hormonal changes have also been found in the babies of fathers who have inhaled oxytocin. This also translated into behaviour: those babies looked more directly at their fathers and were more responsive and exploratory (Weisman et al, 2012).


Testosterone and father-nurture:

• higher testosterone is linked with aggression (Book et al, 2001)

• lower testosterone has been connected with lower likelihood of searching for new partners and with better communication skills in men

• oxytocin delivered in a nasal spray lowers fathers’ testosterone levels (Weisman et al, 2014)

• men who live with a pregnant woman experience drops in testosterone before and immediately after the birth (Berg & Wynne-Edwards, 2001) and in the years following, when they are caring for children (Gettler et al, 2011)

• fathers who sleep in the same room as their babies record particularly low testosterone levels (Gettler et al, 2012).

• men with lower testosterone levels are more alert to babies’ cries, and feel more sympathetic and keen to comfort them (Fleming et al, 2002)

• the testosterone issue, however, is complex: baby cries decrease testosterone in men when coupled with nurturant responses. By contrast, baby cries uncoupled from nurturant responses increase testosterone in men (van Anders et al, 2012).


What does all this tell us?

The value of fathers’ active involvement in infant care to the development of nurturant fatherhood is clear. When this is not facilitated, the bond between father and child may be weakened or may never develop adequately.

Policy needs proactively to draw expectant fathers in – not only to the birth, but also to hospital appointments during pregnancy.

The design of parental leave policy should facilitate caretaking by fathers alongside mothers from the first moments after their babies’ births.

Advice to couples should stress the importance of both parents’ developing infant care skills and confidence as caregivers. Couples should also be made aware of strategies to achieve this: for instance, where they are ‘the secondary parent’ (due, for example, to their working hours), fathers should consciously hold their babies a lot during non-working hours, such as on family outings.



Adesso, L., and Lipson, P. (1981). Group training of parents as therapists for their children. Behaviour Therapy, 12, 625-633.

Barclay, L., & Lupton, D. (1999). The experiences of new fatherhood: a socio cultural analysis. Journal of Advanced Nursing, 29(4), 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): 582–59

Book, A.S., Starzyk, K.B., and Quinsey, V.L. (2001). The relationship between testosterone and aggression: a meta-analysis. Aggression and Violent Behavior. 6: 579–599

Cia, F., Barham, E. J. and Fontaine,, A. M. G. V. (2010). Impacts of a Parent Intervention Program: Their Children’s Academic Achievement and Classroom Behavior. Psicologia-Reflexao E Critica, 23: 533-543.

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): 1133-41

Firestone, P., Kelly, M.J., and Fike, S., (1980). Are fathers necessary in parent training groups? Journal of Clinical Psychology, 9, 44-47.

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): 399–413

Gettler, L.T., McKenna, J.J., McDade, T.W., Agustin, S.S., and Kuzawa, C.W. (2012). Does cosleeping contribute to lower testosterone levels in fathers? Evidence from the Philippines. PLoS One, 7(9)

Gettler, L.T., McDad, T.W., Feranil, A.B., and Kuzaw, C.W. (20111). Longitudinal evidence that fatherhood decreases testosterone in human males. PNAS 108 (39) 16194-16199

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

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

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

Melnyk, B. M., Feinstein, N. F., Alpert-Gillis, L., Fairbanks, E., Crean, H. F., SInkin, R. A., STONE, P. W., SMALL, L., Tu, X. and Gross, S. J. (2006). Reducing premature infants’ length of stay and improving parents’ mental health outcomes with the creating opportunities for parent empowerment (COPE) neonatal intensive care unitprogram: A randomized, controlled trial. Pediatrics, 118, E1414-E1427.

Myers, B.J. (1982). Early Intervention Using Brazelton Training with Middle-Class Mothers and Fathers of Newborns. Child Development, 53(2): 462-471

Naber, F., van IJzendoorn, M.H., Deschamps, P., van Engeland, H., and Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (2010). Intranasal oxytocin increases fathers’ observed responsiveness during play with their children: A double-blind within-subject experiment. Psychoneuroendocrinology, 35(10): 1583–1586

Naber, F.B., Poslawsky, I.E., van Ijzendoorn, M.H., van Engeland, H., and Bakermans-Kranenburg, M.J. (2013). Brief report: oxytocin enhances paternal sensitivity to a child with autism: a double-blind within-subject experiment with intranasally administered oxytocin. Journal of Autism and Developmental Disorders, 43(1): 224-9

Parke, R.D. (2008). Fathers in families. In Marc H. Bornstein (Ed), Handbook of parenting, Vol 3: Being and becoming a parent. Mahwah, NJ: Lawrence Erlbaum & Assoc.

Storey, A.E., Walsh, C.J., , Quinton, R.L., and Wynne-Edwards, K.E. (2000). Hormonal correlates of paternal responsiveness in new and expectant fathers. Evolution and Human Behavior, 21(2): 79-95

van Anders, S.M., Tolman, R.M., and Volling, B.L. (2012). Baby cries and nurturance affect testosterone in men. Hormones and Behavior, 61(1): 31–36

Weisman, O., Zagoory-Sharon, O., and Feldman, R. (2012). Oxytocin administration to parent enhances infant physiological and behavioral readiness for social engagement. Biological Psychiatry, 72(12): 982-9.

Weisman, O., Zagoory-Sharon, O., and Feldman R. (2014). Oxytocin administration, salivary testosterone, and father-infant social behavior. Progress in Neuro-Psychopharmacology & Biological Psychiatry, 49: 47-52


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  • nongenderbias9 says:


    That’s an impressive amount of research to show how important the biological father is to his child. (of course a father doesn’t have to be the biological father in order to bond with a child. ref: R.Bowlby ).
    Likewise the mother bonding to the child doesn’t have to be the biological mother.
    However, if we believe in the “family unit” and the corresponding strength of our society because of it, it behoves us to ensure that both the biological mother and father remain close to their children throughout their upbringing.

    The reason this doesn’t happen is because our legal and social systems conspire to relegate the father to insignificance (with the exception of the usefulness of his wallet) to nothing more than a bystander begging with his former partner to remain a father to his children. This is born out by statistics that tell us post-separation in 94% of cases mothers become what is termed “primary carer”

    In this excerpt from your article you refer to a parent as “Secondary”. It is this kind of derogatory language which ensures that none of the “care taking” which you proclaim our fathers and children need is ever likely to take place.

    Couples should also be made aware of strategies to achieve this: for instance, where they are ‘the secondary parent’ (due, for example, to their working hours), fathers should consciously hold their babies a lot during non-working hours, such as on family outings.

    It is vitally important to recognise that once you start talking about parenting in the context of primary, secondary or even tertiary carers you initiate a process which excludes one parent from the chid’s life. Two parents, two carers, an egg fertilised, a child. It’s really that simple.

    Kind regards

    • Fatherhood Institute says:

      Absolutely – this isn’t just about biological parents. Re the ‘secondary parent’ point, we are making a specific point here about the many couples who divide the earning and caring in such a way that one parent (usually the father) spends less time doing hands-on caring. This is not in any way intended to be read pejoratively.

  • nongenderbias9 says:


    I find it difficult to accept that the term “secondary parent” is not a pejorative statement in the context of two parents who bring children into the world and want to care for them. Surely this is the heart of the problem. The emotional investment of the two people who bring a child into the world is total and unequivocal.
    I don’t see how you can say one parent’s love is more important than another. That’s a bit like playing God isn’t it?

    Even though the political and social reality of two parents living apart may be that the responsibiliies and care become unevenly distributed between the two, the reality (love if you like) is that both parents are emotionally entwined in their offspring.

    I also feel uneasy about father’ being replaceable with another one. We live in a society where women have so much power in childcare that father rarely gets a look in. To make it easier for women to swop fathers through the multiple relationships they may have seems to be damaging for the real fathers relationship to his children and also destructive to the “family unit” resulting in the collapse of the childs relationship not only with the father but also to generations on the paternal side of the family.

    It behoves the parents to allow each other the time needed for each to carry on parenting. As a society we need to assist them in this endeavour, instead of encouraging the relentless drive toward mothers as single and exclusive parents that exists today.

    Kind regards

    • Fatherhood Institute says:

      Thanks for your comments, but just to confirm, the research summary doesn’t talk about separation, and nor does it seek to use the term ‘secondary parent’ other than in the very specific context described.

  • nongenderbias9 says:


    Thanks for compiling this information as it specifically relates to fathers. I have been trying to place it in the context of how our Institutions treat fathers in present day child care environments.

    Why for instance do we try to keep young unmarried fathers away from their children if they have such an important role to play? I remember a previous article of yours made the point that under 18 unmarried fathers weren’t allowed to sleep overnight with their child. I have experience of this myself when accompanying a Social Worker, mother and child. The mother and child had been shifted around to at least four different address’s over a period of time, the Social Worker hoping that the young mother would take responsibility showing that she could care for her child and have a life for herself at the same time. This didn’t happen and eventually Social Services took the child off the mother. I met the father on one occasion and felt immediately sorry that he was being forced by the rules of society to miss so much of his and his child’s upbringing.
    Surely in a balanced Society we should endeavour to keep the child/ father and child/mother relationship alive. If the above research is to be believed then Social Services, the law have got it all wrong. Is it really so difficult to see mother, father and child as a family? Do we really want to overburden mother with childcare responsibilities at the expense of the father/child relationship?

    Kind regards

  • nongenderbias9 says:


    I don’t wish to labour the point but I am going to none the less.

    How would you feel (emotions) if someone described you as a “secondary parent”?

    I would feel this:

    Annoyed, irritated.
    Inferior and unwanted.
    My authority would be diminished in favour of the “primary parent”
    I would feel my view to be of less importance.
    Rather than inclusive and collaborative as a parent I would feel belittled and insignificant.

    The family is no place to create preferential leaders/parents. It is a place for understanding and empathy. What we need is collaboration and respect for one another in what we do. I don’t want a two tier system where the “primary parent” holds the upper hand.

    It seems to me you do so much excellent work to prove what a huge role fathers play in their upbringing and then spoil it all by undermining his right to have a say in family life.

    The reason we have such a huge social problem in this Country is because fathers are invisible to our childcare Institutions (except as abusers or waistrals). Calling him a “secondary parent” because he spends more time at work than his partner will only emphasise this malaise. We know that he is just as capable of childcare as she is of going out to work full-time.

    The problem is men don’t have a voice in childcare.

    Take politics, for example.

    There is a Minister for Womens equality. Apparently Theresa May and her Department have been very busy last year (see Parliamentary website). One of the things they have secured is sums of money that will allow single women to put their children into childcare so they can go out to work (pursue a career). So, whilst she manages to stop the children being looked after by the father she is getting support for them to be looked after by a third party…………..and Dad has no say in this. (enter the concept of “secondary parent”….that’s Dad with no voice)
    In essence father wants to look after his own children but he has no say.

    What we need is a Minister for Mens equality…….if nothing less than to stand up to this relentness onslaught of womens needs disguised as protecting children against this person called a father.

    Thanks once again for your prodigious work. It is to be hoped it will be put to good use.

    Kind regards

  • Martin andrews says:

    In terms of using ‘secondary carer’ I can see how its use can highlight the importance that semantics plays in creating a negative and a positive image of care giver, regardless of whether they are male or female. However I feel its patriachy that may have had a more significant and long lasting influence on the division of care giver and bread winner than FI’s terminology. Hopefully the sharing of paternity leave changes next year will be the start of the ‘cultural drift’ (shift is too strong a term) Stuart Hall et al have long discussed around race equalities and that’s probably another campaign that we have FI to thank for.

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