Bonding With Baby

The Hormone Connection

Though few would deny that carrying a child in a womb for nine months gives women a big head start in the bonding process, recent research suggests that the differences in the ways mothers and fathers bond with their babies may be due as much to social upbringing as to biological predisposition.

Until recently, men were commonly presumed to be made from inferior parenting material. Anthropologist Margaret Mead once quipped that fathers were "a biological necessity but a social accident" -- essential for fertilizing an egg but not so useful thereafter. However, a spate of recent studies suggest quite the contrary: Fathers are endowed with parenting skills comparable to those of mothers, and just as their spouses' bodies change and hormones rage during and immediately after pregnancy, men may undergo significant hormonal changes to prime them for fatherhood.

We're not just talking sympathy pains, either. In two Canadian studies, expectant fathers showed a marked change in their levels of the stress hormone cortisol (which is strongly linked to attentiveness and attachment) as well as an increase in the hormone prolactin (associated with lactation and parenting behavior). One of the studies found that men have an increase in the female hormone estradiol. Of equal significance, the studies found that testosterone levels dropped by one third during the first three weeks after birth, an adjustment that scientists speculate is nature's way of guiding men to nest rather than seek out new mates. "These changes would seem to help dads adjust to the role of new parenthood," says Anne E. Storey, Ph.D., a psychology professor at Memorial University, in St. Johns, Newfoundland, and one of the study researchers.

Other studies have confirmed that men have an innate nurturing instinct. Psychologist Marsha Kaitz, of Hebrew University, in Jerusalem, found that when their senses of sight, sound, and smell were suppressed, mothers and fathers who had spent a minimum of one hour with their infant were comparably adept at recognizing her simply by stroking the backs of her hands. And Ross Parke, Ph.D., director of the Center for Family Studies at the University of California at Riverside, tracked parental tendencies during the first two days of children's lives. His consistent conclusion after many years of study: Men are just as attuned as women to a baby's cues and just as capable of responding appropriately.

Nonetheless, it's abundantly clear that dads and moms generally connect to their babies in different ways. By the time an infant is 8 weeks old, he can readily distinguish between the two parenting styles. A Boston Children's Hospital study showed that when infants were approached by their mothers, their pulse and respiratory rates went down, their shoulders relaxed, and their eyelids lowered. When their fathers approached, their heart and breathing rates quickened, their shoulders hunched, and their eyes widened, as if anticipating action.

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