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.



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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

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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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