Decades of research has shown that women go through dramatic shifts in their neurobiology when they become mothers. The woman's brain, 'hardwired' for motherhood, activates certain pathways and brings about a flood of hormonal changes that help them empathize and bond with the child. It gives them the ability to multitask and even perceive subtle cues and threats in the environment. These changes result in what is perceived as the natural tendencies known as maternal instincts.
But what of the father? While the entire gamut of changes are still being explored, preliminary research revealed that fathers also go through a host of neural and hormonal changes similar to the mothers, although in slightly different and unique ways.
Human fathers belong to a minority of under six per cent of mammal species that get actively involved in parenting and childcare.
Becoming a father is said to be a life-changing experience. Here's what research says about what’s happening inside.
There is a marked decrease in testosterone and cortisol following the birth of a baby in the initial months. This results in a change in motivation as behaviour is guided toward nurturing and caring for the newborn in lieu of chasing down other usual pursuits.
Prolactin, a hormone that aids in the production of breast milk in women who have given birth is also found to be elevated in new fathers. In fathers, this hormone decreases libido and helps guide behaviour and emotions toward child care. Fathers with higher levels of prolactin were revealed to be more alert in response to their child’s cries.
Oxytocin, known as the ‘love hormone’ is responsible for positive social behaviour, empathy and romance in humans. Similar to mothers, fathers also see an increase in oxytocin after the birth of a child. According to this study, for fathers, this was correlated with “a paternal way of interaction – highly arousing play, focus on joint exploration, and stimulatory touch.” Further, contact with the child for even fifteen minutes resulted in significant increases in levels of oxytocin in both the parent and the child.
Vasopressin is another hormone that becomes active in a father’s brain. It is responsible for increased empathy, social cognition and plays a part in bringing out the protective instinct in a father.
Preliminary studies on animals indicate the development of new neurons in the brains of fathers, induced by the birth of a child, specifically in the hippocampus region which is responsible for memory and navigation.
In both new mothers and fathers, the brain goes through an activation of the ‘parenting network’. For mothers, this is triggered through pregnancy and childbirth. Although, for fathers, this is activated based on their involvement in childcare. Direct involvement in the day-to-day care of a child results in similar patterns of change that a mothers' brain goes through during conception.
In conclusion, a fathers is also receptive to be a caregiver, though it is directly correlated with their level of involvement in child care.