Updated: Oct 21
Wow! I am still totally blown away by what I am about to share with you. This body of research about men and the impact their parenting has on children is so incredibly empowering.
A couple months ago, I was commuting to and from work, listening to an episode of one of my favorite podcasts (Goop – Episode: What Makes a Dad a Dad), and I literally pulled over to the side of the road multiple times to replay the podcast and take notes.
The guest of this episode was Anna Machin, anthropologist, who, after having a traumatic birth experience, noticed the impact on her husband, realized there was essentially no research on fathers and the impact that parenting has on them or the positive impact that fathers have on children, and knew there had to be so much more for us to learn. She published a book last year (The Life of a Dad) that I think every new (or not new!) father needs to read to fully appreciate the special role he gets to play in raising his children.
After hearing this podcast, I was inspired to dig into the research on fathers myself. What I found was so amazing I had to share it with you.
Be sure to check out my favorites, #1, #4, and #5
1. Men Lose Testosterone When Becoming Dad
#dadbod – Is it a real thing? Welllll, kind of. But it is not really what you think.
It is well known (and obvious, duh) that the body of a woman changes in a variety of ways when becoming a mother.
However, since men lack the whole pregnancy/delivery/breastfeeding components of parenting, physical changes when becoming a father are not so obvious. And not even well studied. Only over the past 10 years have scientists really begun to dig into the micro changes in a man’s body after becoming a father. And although the changes are relatively small, researchers believe they are practical, and I find them super enlightening and so very appropriate.
A little science first...
Men have a set amount of testosterone that they need, and a small amount that fluctuates based on circumstance, environment, and genetics. Turns out, the body adjusts the amount of testosterone in a man’s body based on what he needs in that moment.
Testosterone in men has been found to influence both aggression and nurturance. Higher levels of testosterone lead to more aggressive behavior (evolutionarily, to help men find mates, reproduce, compete for food/work, and protect their mates and their young).
On the contrary, lower levels of testosterone have been linked with more parental investment, greater empathy and response to their children, and more sensitivity and investment, and less aggression toward romantic partners.
So here’s the good news. When a man becomes an involved father, his testosterone levels decrease. The lower a man’s testosterone levels, the more sensitive he is, the more responsive he is to his child, the more involved in his child's care he is, the better he is able to meet his child’s needs, and the more invested he is in his relationship with the child’s mother. And the decrease is not temporary. Testosterone levels never return to where they were pre-fatherhood.
#dadbods for the win!
2. Men Get an Oxytocin High Too
#dadbod Round 2!
If testosterone interferes with sensitive fatherhood (and a man’s body must decrease the amount of testosterone to help promote involved parenting), oxytocin facilitates it.
Oxytocin is the feel good hormone – most mothers know its power from the superhuman feeling they get after birth and the intense bonding and love they feel when breastfeeding.
However, fathers also get an oxytocin high during the first 6 months after birth AND when they interact (with contact) with their infants and toddlers. An increase of oxytocin in fathers (similar to the decrease in testosterone), increases paternal sensitivity and empathy, decreases hostility, and increases paternal play, touch, and social interactions.
In fact, fathers who live with their partner during pregnancy get an increase in oxytocin as early as during pregnancy – and to the same extent as the mother. This spike in oxytocin during the prenatal period helps prepare fathers to establish bonding with the baby and baby’s mother for after delivery.
3. Kids Prefer to be Nurtured by Moms
Moms, imagine (won't be hard)….
You are standing at the sink, elbow deep in dirty dishes, your child falls and hits his knee, your husband says “oh man, that must have hurt, come here and let me see”, and your kiddo walks right past him to you, begging for you to comfort him. Your husband’s feelings are hurt, and you have to put the dirty pan down, rinse off, and dry your hands before comforting your little one.
Moms and dads bond differently with children. We know this.
Moms get a head start with bonding during pregnancy, breastfeeding, and with the rush of bonding hormones we get after delivery. Also, since we bond more over nurturing acts such as snuggling, soothing, and caring for our babes – and there is a lot of snuggling, soothing, and caring for babes going on during the first 6 months of life – we naturally get a lot of bonding time in. Which is great, because there is a lot of consistent research that shows that babies who are well nurtured during infancy have more positive future cognitive, social, and emotional growth.
However, even outside of infancy, children gravitate towards moms to get their nurturing. If you are a mom, you have most definitely experienced this.
The reason for this... mom’s prefer to nurture and children prefer to be nurtured by their moms. We know this because studies have shown that moms get an increased brain response when they nurture their children AND children get an increase brain response when they are nurtured by their moms!
Note: This is not to say that dads do not feel reward for nurturing or that children do not feel positive effects when nurtured by dad, it is simply not as much as with mom.
4. Dads Are Meant to be the Fun Parent
Surly, I am not the only mom to experience this...
You ask your husband to get bedtime started with the kids so you can clean the kitchen. He takes them to their rooms, and 2 minutes later you hear jumping and laughing and children being thrown on the bed in a game of monster. Sounds fun... but not quite what you were looking for as you were trying to wind everyone down and prepare for bedtime.
I mentioned above that moms bond through nurturing acts. In fact, children prefer (when given the option) to be nurtured by mom, and moms have a preference for nurturing. But what about dads? How do dads bond with their children?
Retrospectively, this all makes sense. Dads prefer to bond with their children through play. And not just any type of play.
They get the most stimulation in the reward centers of their brains when they engage in “rough and tumble play” – meaning play that increases in intensity, involves contact, and focuses on the environment and not just on each other.
Eek, I kinda feel a tad guilty for getting annoyed at my husband for “winding the kids up”.
In many Western families, fathers are away from their children most of the day while at work. These rough and tumble play sessions allow short bursts of intense bonding in a father’s time-poor world.
Seriously, brilliant! A man’s body knows what it needs to be able to bond with his child – and although he is away from the child most of the day – gets adequate bonding through these intense bonding play sessions.
I guess dads are meant to be the “fun parent after all”.
5. Play With Dad Helps Children Control Emotions
Recently my husband was holding a ball while standing next to my 3-year-old daughter. Seemingly out of nowhere, he bounced the ball off my daughter’s head. My eyes widened wondering why he did this and how she was going to react. To my surprise, she looked at him and laughed. I was shocked, horrified.... just kidding... I was actually impressed that my husband and daughter followed suit with what research shows.
A study from the Infant Mental Health Journal in 2017 showed some interesting findings:
1. Fathers play with girls just as intensely as they play with boys.
2. (However), fathers are better able to adjust their play to meet boys emotional needs (and not overstep boundaries/upset the child) and mothers are better able to adjust their play to meet girls emotional needs.
This goes along with a lot of other research that children prefer to interact with their same sex parent.
3. Fathers have a similar intensity of play for children who are born preterm, but a lower quality of play*. However, once the child seemed to cognitively function more like a “normal” full-term child, the quality of play increased.
4. Fathers who have had significant childhood adversity in their lives also had very low quality of play* – no matter the age or gender of the child. The more severe the adversity, the lower the quality of play.
Childhood adversity in this study includes high levels of chaos/family stress, parental substance abuse, parental mental illness, verbal threats and harm, witness of domestic violence, psychological and sexual abuse, neglect.
BEST TAKEAWAY - Play with fathers helps to teach (most) children throughout preschool years to control their emotions during play. You want less tantrums when losing a game of cards... have your kids play with your husbands!
*The ability of a parent to adjust their play to meet emotional needs/not overstep boundaries is considered the quality of play in this study.
6. Play With Dad Improves Cognition
Do you let your kiddo beat you when playing games?
When I play soccer in the back yard with my son I let him run circles around me. I mean, I’m no soccer star, but really, I don’t play hard.
When my husband plays soccer in the back yard with my son, it’s a whole other story. They are both sweating and hustling, there is a lot more strategy talk and tip giving, and my husband definitely gives my son a run for his money.
You may find it interesting that... a study published in the Social Development journal in 2002 demonstrated that mothers and fathers play different roles when it comes to preparing children for life.
This study showed that, while mothers provide comfort/security in the face of distress, fathers serve a unique role that offers (sensitive/supportive) encouragement for exploration, teaching, and challenges during play.
The cool part about this...
This mentorship during play and encouragement during challenges is thought to be what gives kiddos an edge when it comes to executive functioning – things like mastering the ability to adjust to new demands and regulate emotions and behavior.
It must be noted, of course, the ability of the father to challenge in a supportive and sensitive way is critical for the positive changes to be seen with executive functioning. For those who push too hard, the opposite effect is seen.
7, Father's Have a Greater Impact on Cognition During Toddlerhood Than Mothers
A study published in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2015 showed that both parents have an equal impact on executive functioning during infancy, but during toddlerhood (when the child is much more independent and has a greater interest in exploration and playful interactions), the father has a much greater impact.
The more supportive the father is during play in toddlerhood, the better the kiddo’s executive functioning was at age 3.
Fathers are capable of love, but their job is to challenge.
To prepare their kiddo to face the world. To deal with life’ challenges.
To assess risks. To jump over hurdles.
To deal with failure and success.
It’s a pretty badass job.
Katie Ramirez, RN, BSN, CLC
Born Happy, Owner and Coach
Katie Ramirez is a Registered Nurse, Certified Lactation Counselor, and Coach for parents of babies and toddlers. She has spent more than a decade serving patients at major university hospitals such as Vanderbilt University and Penn State University Medical Centers. Katie now spends her time supporting and empowering parents of babies and toddlers as owner and coach for Born Happy.
Katie is the proud mother of two beautiful children, Roberto (age 6), and Veronica (age 4). She has a passion for health, wellness, and happy children, and believes that, with the necessary knowledge and support, all parents can live happy.
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