Study finds infant bonding may rewire new fathers’ brains

by Jacob Fuller

Lauren Dempsey, MS in Biomedicine and Law, RN, FISM News 


Becoming a parent is a transformational process, anyone who has experienced parenthood knows that it is life-changing. New research shows that it is brain-altering, as well.

Research has shown that for women these changes start to happen during pregnancy. Hormones can actually change brain matter, enhancing the neuroplasticity of the brain. It is widely believed that these changes occur to help mothers connect with their newborns, resulting in an innate and primitive response to caregiving.

There has been very little research on how becoming a father changes men neurologically. However, a recent study evaluated new fathers from Spain and California to examine “the neuroanatomic adaptations of men transitioning into fatherhood.” They found that changes in gray matter, the amygdala, and the increased production of the hormone oxytocin have a positive effect on the brains of new fathers.

These changes help fathers to form attachments and bonds by feeling a sense of love and protection. These changes to the brain essentially rewire the brain to focus on driving nurturing behaviors.

Researchers at the University of Southern California and at the Instituto de Investigación Sanitaria Gregorio Marañón in Madrid followed a total of 40 men during their partner’s pregnancy. When the babies were six months old, doctors performed an MRI on the fathers. The results of their brain scans were compared to 17 childless men.

Results from the scans produced promising insight into how fatherhood changes the brain of men. In both the Spanish and Californian groups of men, fathers’ brain changes appeared in regions of the cortex that contribute to visual processing, attention, and empathy toward the baby. These changes were not seen in the group of childless men across the same time period of the study.

When compared to first-time mothers, the changes observed in fathers were only about half the magnitude. The study authors suggest that the magnitude of the brain changes varies due to the varying range of paternal involvement in childrearing.

While some of these changes are biological, the study authors theorize that these changes may be affected by the level of involvement and amount of time fathers spend caring for their children. This can vary based on geographical location and research suggests that social and cultural factors also have an influence on fatherhood.

While fathers are increasingly more involved than they were 50 years ago, spending an average of eight hours a week on child care, 53% of Americans still believe that “mothers do a better job than fathers” when it comes to caring for children, according to a Pew Research poll. There is no legitimate doubt that fathers play a significant parenting role that is essential to healthy development.

However, many fathers struggle to find a balance between work and home life. Just over half of men report that this is a challenge, with 63% saying they spend too little time with their children and just 39% of fathers report feeling as if they are doing a “very good job” raising their children.

Many European countries, like Spain, have acknowledged the value of paid leave, for mothers and fathers, especially in those early weeks and months of having a new baby. This time is essential for bonding and has notable benefits for the family unit. However in the United States, only 23% of workers have access to paid parental leave and the Family and Medical Leave Act ensures just 12 weeks of unpaid, job protection for eligible employees.

Spanish fathers involved in the study had much more obvious changes to the brain in regions that support goal-directed attention, which may help fathers to become more in tune with their infants’ needs when compared with Californian fathers.

The researchers note that more studies need to be done to answer some lingering questions, such as how to best help fathers adjust to parenthood, how caregiving affects the brain in both men and women, as well as how to prioritize research on fatherhood.