Two New Studies: The Biochemical Bonds Between Fathers and Children

December 24, 2014 by Robert Franklin, Esq, Member, National Board of Directors, National Parents Organization

A couple of small new studies indicate that expectant and new fathers undergo hormonal changes and changes in the brain leading up to the birth of their child. Here’s one report (The Independent, 12/22/14). And here’s the other (Health Day, 12/17/14).

In the first,

Researchers from Yale University scanned the brains of 16 university-educated professionals at different stages of their young child’s life, and discovered that becoming a father can trigger a major brain chemistry change.

The study, the first to look at the neurological changes brought about by fatherhood, concluded that fathers who are involved in bringing up their children adapt quickly and become as suited to parenthood as mothers.

Among the changes to the father’s brain is the expansion of grey matter, shrinking grey matter elsewhere and a larger pre-frontal cortex

These changes manifest as increased emotional response, improved multitasking and also a worse memory.

Researchers found that gay fathers experience the same brain change if they are involved in raising the child.

In the second, researchers tested the saliva of first-time fathers-to-be during their partners’ pregnancies.

While women’s hormonal fluctuations during pregnancy are well-known, new research shows that men experience swings of their own as their partner’s pregnancy progresses.

"There are hormonal changes going on with men as well, and they occur earlier than other studies have suggested," said lead researcher Robin Edelstein, an associate professor of psychology at the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor.

"What we found is there is a gradual decline in men’s testosterone," she said. The study was published online Dec. 15 in the American Journal of Human Biology.

Edelstein and her team followed 29 expectant heterosexual couples, all expecting their first child together. They looked at four different times throughout the pregnancy, evaluating salivary testosterone, cortisol, estradiol and progesterone. They looked at the levels of those hormones at weeks 12, 20, 28 and 36.

As expected, levels of all four of the hormones increased in women. (Women’s testosterone declines after birth.) Meanwhile, men showed substantial declines in levels of both testosterone and estradiol but showed no changes in levels of cortisol or progesterone…

She can’t explain why the hormones change as they do in men, or what effect that might have. "That is something we are really interested in," she said. "It’s something we can look at, but we haven’t yet."…

The change might be about psychologically preparing to be a father, Edelstein speculated….

The ideas as to why the changes occur also need more study, he said.

But just knowing about the hormone change may help prospective parents, Singer said, and it may help both partners to support each other if they realize both are going through changes.

Those are the studies in a nutshell. All in all, they give us some new information, but nothing earth-shattering. Inadvertently, one of the bits of information they give us is that researchers are at last beginning to look at fathers and the biochemical ways they change in response to a new child. The more research on that topic, the better. Here’s why:

Mammals bear young that require considerable parental care before they’re mature enough to care for themselves and contribute to the social group. In order for mammals to have evolved as they have, hormones were required for adults to provide the protection and nurturing of offspring that would allow them to reach sexual maturity.

After all, it’s not in the adults’ interest to do that. Immature offspring eat, but they don’t hunt or gather food. They’re incapable of protecting themselves and therefore require protection. They’re small, weak and slow and therefore attract predators. Lactating females require up to three times the calories of non-lactating females, i.e. they consume more scarce resources than do other adults. Adults are well known to be willing to fight, literally to the death, to protect their young. In short, caring for offspring makes no sense for adult mammals.

So, without some method of convincing adults to care for children, adult mammals wouldn’t do so. Enter hormones. Hormones like estradiol, prolactin, cortisol and oxytocin have been shown in the laboratory to produce parenting behavior in adults who neither have offspring nor are expecting any. Indeed, among individuals, those that don’t produce the necessary hormones take no part in raising their young.

Now, in the huge majority of mammals, only females produce the necessary hormones to behave like parents. Only between 5% and 10% of mammal species are bi-parental, i.e. both parents care for young. (Birds are just the opposite. Over 90% of bird species are bi-parental.) But it turns out that humans happen to be one of those few bi-parental mammals. That necessarily means that both mothers and fathers undergo the type of hormonal changes required to promote parental behavior.

Therefore, researchers who look for those changes in fathers are looking for what they already know to be there. The exact nature of the changes is at present unknown (why does estradiol increase in women but decline in men?), but we know they exist. Otherwise, fathers wouldn’t act fatherly.

Needless to say, the presence of these hormonal and neurological changes has important implications for public policy, or should. For one thing, we should dispense with once and for all the notion that mothers are better, more natural or more important parents than are fathers. They’re not; both parents are biochemically intended to care for children.

Second, and perhaps most importantly, we must ensure that fathers have the opportunity to undergo those changes that produce parental behavior. Mothers of course undergo those changes during and because of pregnancy. But fathers, not being physically attached to the fetus, must be permitted to be close to the mother of their child. Without that closeness, those hormonal changes can’t take place and the all-important parent-child bond is endangered.

From the standpoint of public policy, fathers must have an enforceable right to know about their child from the earliest possible time. That means mothers must no longer be able to keep a pregnancy or a child secret from a father. We want children to have two parents because that’s what most promotes their well-being both short- and long-term. If a mother believes a father to be dangerous to her or the child, she will have to rely on the judicial process to adjudicate her claims. The time has passed that mothers may legitimately decide for themselves alone whether to grant fathers the opportunity to bond with their children.

Slowly, the science on fathers and fathering is catching up with that on mothers and mothering. The more we learn, the more we realize what should have been obvious all along – human children are meant to be brought up by both parents. It’s time our legal institutions caught up with science.


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Together, we can drive home the family, child development, social and national benefits of shared parenting, and fair child support and alimony. Thank you for your activism.


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