Science of fatherhood


Anna Machin, anthropologist at the University of Oxford, has published new research on the science of fatherhood. The study was conducted over 10 years, but it only looked at heterosexual, nuclear families.

Some male hormonal changes can happen before a baby is even born. Men who live with their pregnant partners seem to sync with them hormonally. When the baby arrives, a man can expect his testosterone levels to reduce. This change is permanent. “It might go up a little bit but it will never, ever return to where it was before he became a father,” says Machin. The fall in testosterone helps a man fulfil this new role.

Testosterone motivates a man to have as many sexual relationships as possible, Machin says. “When you become a father, your child needs you to stick around for their successful development, so that high level of testosterone is not such a great thing to have.” And the drop happens to all dads, whether they stay in the relationship with the baby’s mother or not.

Evidence for this can be seen on the brain scan of a new parent while they watch a video of their child, Machin says. In mothers, the limbic system, which is involved in risk assessment and nurturing behaviours, shows the most activity. In fathers, it is the neocortex, connected with understanding social situations and problem-solving that lights up the most.

In a male couple where one partner takes on the primary caregiving role, his brain will show activity in both areas. “What’s even more interesting is that those areas have a new neural connection to allow them to communicate with each other, so that the father can fulfil that dual role of being the nurturing parent, but also being the one who is going to push those social developmental boundaries,” says Machin. “That is, I think, fascinating.” The work is very new, and we still don’t know if the brains of female couples or single parents adapt in the same way. Machin thinks they probably do.

Despite the changes that happen in a father’s body and brain after his child is born, it takes a while for him to make the transition to fatherhood and feel comfortable with his new parental identity, Machin has found. For mothers, this takes about nine months, whereas for fathers it can be up to two years.

A 2014 study looked at mothers’ and fathers’ involvement with their children at 7 and 24 months, then assessed the children at 3 years old. The team found that both parents seemed to have an equal impact at 7 months, but at 24 months, the effect of the father was much greater. The more supportive that the father is, the more advanced the child’s cognitive development. “It is only once the child begins to explore their world and develop a life away from their parents… that dad’s unique contribution to development kicks in,” says Machin.

There are also downsides for fathers. At some point during pregnancy or after giving birth, 10-20% of women develop depression. Less well known is that around 10% of fathers can be affected too, says Anna Machin. “It is a major problem, and we’re still trying to understand it,” she says, but the condition is under-acknowledged in men. “There are still no independent diagnostic tools for depression in fathers, and there need to be.”

Symptoms of ‘baby blues’ depression in men differ from those in women, and include more anxiety and aggression. Also, Machin says, men tend to withdraw from the family and self-medicate with drugs and alcohol to a greater extent. A man’s testosterone level drops once he becomes a father, and “testosterone is a protector against depression, so if you have a particularly big drop when you become a dad, then the dad is at risk,” says Machin.

A man’s well-being can be affected before his baby is born, too. The Couvade syndrome, sometimes called sympathetic pregnancy is a mysterious set of ailments sometimes experienced by male partners of pregnant women. “Men who have it seem to be experiencing some sort of reaction to their partner’s pregnancy,” says Machin. “It’s generally being very tired, putting on weight and having digestive issues. Bizarrely, toothache is one of the symptoms, and you get a lot of headaches.” Machin said that the Couvade syndrom seems to appear only in industrialised countries. No one yet knows exactly what causes it, but she believes it is the result of fathers having a diminished role in such societies.

It is crucial that dads are recognised as being vulnerable to health problems, and that they are offered support through the pregnancy and beyond, says Machin. That’s all the more important given that fathers have an impact on their child’s development. “I think if we were more inclusive and placed more value on the fathers in our society, you would see less Couvade and poor mental health in fathers.”

Leave a Reply