Updated: Oct 24, 2022
What is a dad, anyway?
Not the dictionary definition of a dad. But, what actually happens when a man becomes a dad? What is a dad?
I am still blown away by what I am about to share with you.
A little backstory about how I came upon this research.
Years ago, I was commuting to work and listening to a podcast (Goop – Episode: What Makes a Dad a Dad).
I was so in awe of what I heard, 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, an anthropologist.
After having a traumatic birth experience, Anna noticed the impact the trauma had on her husband. Being an anthropologist, she wanted to understand this. Anna soon realized there was essentially no research on the impact that parenting has on fathers or the positive impact that fathers have on children. And so, she got to work.
After hearing this podcast, I was inspired to dig into the research on dads myself.
So, what is a dad? What makes a dad a dad? And are dads actually the fun parent? Check it out.
1. Dad Bod Is Real - A Man's Body Changes When Becoming Dad
#dadbod – Is it a real thing? Well, 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 dad 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 dad. 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. They also have a small amount of testosterone 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.
Higher levels of testosterone lead to more aggressive behavior. This helps men
compete for food/work
protect their mates and their young
but can interfere with being a sensitive father
Lower levels of testosterone have been linked with more parental investment such as
greater empathy and response to their children
more sensitivity and investment
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
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.
Not to worry, though. A man's body will maintain enough testosterone, but essentially takes the edge off to shift from finding a mate to nurturing their child.
Though men do not have obvious changes to their body when becoming a dad, a man's body changes forever when becoming an involved father.
#dadbod for the win!
2. Dad Bod Is Real, Part 2 - Dads Get an Oxytocin High
#dadbod Round 2!
As we just learned, higher levels of testosterone interfere with sensitive fatherhood. A man’s body must decrease the amount of testosterone to help promote involved parenting.
On the other hand, higher levels of oxytocin promote sensitive fatherhood.
Oxytocin is the feel-good hormone. Most mothers know its power from the superhuman feeling after birth and the intense bonding and love during breastfeeding.
Big news here.
Fathers also get an oxytocin high
during the prenatal period if living with their pregnant partner
during the first 6 months after birth
when interacting (with contact) with their infants and toddlers
An increase of oxytocin in fathers (similar to the decrease in testosterone),
increases paternal sensitivity and empathy
increases paternal play, touch, and social interactions
prepare fathers to establish bonding with the baby and baby’s mother for after delivery
Once again, we now know that a man's body changes when becoming a father. Increases in oxytocin promote sensitive fatherhood.
3. Kids Prefer to be Nurtured by Moms
Moms, imagine this (it 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.” Your child walks right past dad to you, begging for you to comfort him.
Dad'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, moms 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.
So, moms 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? Moms 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 - It Is How They Bond
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.
Dad takes the kids to their rooms. Two 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 to be nurtured by mom, and moms have a preference for nurturing.
But what about dads? How do dads bond with their children?
Dads prefer to bond with their children through play. And not just any type of play.
Children get the most stimulation in the reward centers of their brains when they engage in “rough and tumble play.” This means 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”.
Retrospectively, this all makes sense.
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.
A man’s body knows what it needs to be able to bond with his child.
Although he is away from the child most of the day, a dad 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 During Play
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:
Fathers play with daughters just as intensely as they play with sons
(However), fathers are better able to adjust their play to meet their sons' emotional needs, and not overstep boundaries/upset the child
Mothers are better able to adjust their play to meet their daughters' emotional needs
This goes along with a lot of other research that children prefer to interact with their same sex parent
Fathers have a similar intensity (but lower quality*) of play for children who are born preterm. However, once the child seemed to cognitively function more like a “normal” full-term child, the quality of play increased.
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.
BIGGEST TAKEAWAY - Play with fathers during preschool age years helps to teach (most) children 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.
**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.
6. Play with Dad Improves Executive Functioning in Children
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 this interesting.
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. And that 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. Dads Have a Greater Impact on Executive Functioning During Toddlerhood Than Moms
Ok, so we know that both parents play a role in developing their child's executive functioning.
Turns out, during infancy, both parents have an equal impact on executive functioning, according to a study published in the Journal of Family Psychology in 2015.
However, this study also showed that during toddlerhood (when the child is much more independent and has a greater interest in exploration and playful interactions), play with the father has a much greater impact on cognition as compared to the mothers sensitive parenting.
The more supportive the father is during play in toddlerhood, the better the kiddo’s executive functioning was at age 3.
So, what is a dad?
Dads love, but their job is to challenge.
To prepare their child 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.
Ahnert L, et al. Father-Child Play During the Preschool Years and Child Internalizing Behaviors: Between Robustness and Vulnerability. Infant Ment Health J. 2017 Nov;38(6):743-756. doi: 10.1002/imhj.21679. Epub 2017 Nov 9. PMID: 29120479.
Towe-Goodman NR, W, et al. Fathers' sensitive parenting and the development of early executive functioning. J Fam Psychol. 2014 Dec;28(6):867-76. doi: 10.1037/a0038128. Epub 2014 Oct 27. PMID: 25347539; PMCID: PMC4261022.
Grossmann, K., et al (2002). The uniqueness of the child-father attachment relationship: Fathers' sensitive and challenging play as a pivotal variable in a 16-year longitudinal study. Social Development, 11(3), 307–331. https://doi.org/10.1111/1467-9507.00202
Gordon I, Zagoory-Sharon O, Leckman JF, Feldman R. Prolactin, Oxytocin, and the development of paternal behavior across the first six months of fatherhood. Horm Behav. 2010 Aug;58(3):513-8. doi: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2010.04.007. Epub 2010 Apr 24. PMID: 20399783; PMCID: PMC3247300.
Grebe NM, Sarafin RE, Strenth CR, Zilioli S. Pair-bonding, fatherhood, and the role of testosterone: A meta-analytic review. Neurosci Biobehav Rev. 2019 Mar;98:221-233. doi: 10.1016/j.neubiorev.2019.01.010. Epub 2019 Jan 9. PMID: 30639674.
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 9), and Veronica (age 7). 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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