Academic studies can be fascinating... and totally confusing. So we decided to strip away all of the scientific jargon and break them down for you.
It's well-established that women experience hormonal shifts that switch their bodies into mommy mode during pregnancy, but less is known about the hormones that make men into caring dads. Testosterone, the male sex hormone, is believed to be a key factor: Studies have shown that if men exhibit nurturing behavior and feel more empathetic when an infant cries, their testosterone levels decrease. But is the inverse true? Do a man's testosterone levels affect his behavior as a parent? And, if so, what other biological and lifestyle factors contribute to this dynamic? In a new study, researchers from the University of Michigan explored these questions.
The researchers studied 175 dads of 1-year-olds, visiting them twice in a month-long period to conduct two tests and a survey. At each visit, fathers first provided saliva samples that would later be tested for hormones. Then, they participated in an exercise in which they repeatedly separated and reunited with their infants. This was meant to show the infant-parent attachment relationship, since separating infants from parents is usually a stressful experience for infants that typically leads parents to comfort infants once they're back together. Fathers then provided a second saliva sample.
Next, the fathers and infants participated in a 15-minute teaching exercise, in which dads taught their 1-year-olds how to use different kinds of toys. After that, fathers gave another saliva sample.
During these visits, the dads also took a survey about their relationship with their spouse, their division of infant care with their partner and their general experiences with empathy and personal distress.
After the dads saw their infants upset during the separating/reuniting exercise, their testosterone levels dropped, kicking in their need to comfort their little one. This hormonal shift didn't happen when they were doing the teaching task, an exercise that presumably left their kid feeling happy and calm.
The researchers think this could suggest a more general pattern: When a dad sees his infant crying and empathizes with his little one's distress, his testosterone levels decrease. This hormonal shift allows him to be a loving, caring father to his infant.
But lower testosterone levels weren't the only predictors of empathetic, nurturing dads. The survey results showed that fathers with daughters tended to be more sensitive than those with sons, something previous research has also found. Similarly, dads who loved their spouse, as well as dads who generally had higher levels of personal distress, tended to show more empathy with their infants.
The researchers also explain that their study doesn't rule out the possibility that other hormones or specific brain regions could be involved in this type of paternal behavior.
Of course, "good" dads come in all sorts of moods and dispositions. It's not likely that fatherhood will ever be watered down to a single metric, like how much testosterone a man has in his body at a specific moment. Plus, the survey showed that there are a lot of other factors interacting with those hormone levels that may also predict how nurturing a man is as a father.
That said, it's interesting to see how the body hormonally adapts to the demands of parenting. Previous studies have shown that men's testosterone increases when they don't feel empathy. For dads, this could mean that, instead of empathizing with their infant's cries, they may find them aggravating and respond in a cold or negative way. So lower testosterone levels could just be nature's way of telling dads, "Pssst, your little one needs some comforting."
At the very least, these findings can serve as a reminder that women aren't alone in the natural, albeit sometimes unpleasant, hormonal turmoil parenthood brings.
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