As mums know, you go through so many changes as you grow and give birth to a baby. Hormonal changes and emotional changes for women after birth are well documented and talked about. But what about the dads? How does becoming a dad for the first time change you?
There’s no denying that having a baby changes you forever. As new mums and dads we are catapulted into a new world where we are suddenly tending to the needs of a tiny human.
Priorities change, sleep deprivation takes its toll and it’s an emotional rollercoaster. But are there any physical changes in men after becoming a dad for the first time? A recent study from researchers at Yale University looked at how having a baby alters a man’s brain – and the findings are fascinating.
Having a baby changes dads’ brains
The study, published in the journal of Social Neuroscience, looked at structural changes in a man’s brain in the first four months after birth. New dads’ brains were scanned at 2-4 weeks after birth and again at 12-16 weeks. And some interesting changes were discovered.
The researchers found that when a new dad is involved in caring for his newborn baby, he undergoes chemical changes to the key areas of his brain that help him to nurture and bond with his new baby.
So dads even though you don’t physically and emotionally go through the changes of a mother, who grows and gives birth to a baby, you still develop similar nurturing skills after birth.
New dads get more emotionally responsive
Researchers also found that in certain parts of a new dad’s brain they had increased grey matter. This included the areas of the striatum, the hypothalamus, the amygdala and anterior cingulate cortex and the lateral prefrontal cortex. So what does this all mean?
These areas of the brain are regions important for nurturing and attachment behaviours. They increase after men become fathers, making them more able to bond with their newborn babies and become more emotionally responsive to their needs.
Multitasking is not just for mums
The researchers also found that increases in certain parts of the brain mean that new dads become better at multitasking!
A handy skill for any new parent.
Dads can recognise different baby cries too
The changes to new dads’ brains found by this study, also mean that new fathers are more able to tune into their baby’s cries and work out their needs. Just like new mums.
This is backed up by a separate study which looked into how well both mums and dads can recognise their baby’s cry.
New mums report that they are able to recognise their own baby’s cry right from birth. They can sleep through the cries of other babies on the maternity ward but wake when their own baby needs them. This phenomenon is often put down to an ingrained maternal instinct.
It turns out that dads are just as good at this as mums. In this study by Live Science, both parents could detect their own baby’s cries about 90% of the time. And dads scored just as highly as mums!
So dads unfortunately now there’s no excuse for not waking up to baby’s cries in the night to help with those night feeds.
Worse memory and decision making
The Yale research into changing brains found that while grey matter increases in some areas of men’s brains after they become fathers, it shrinks in others.
They might become better at nurturing their baby and tuning into his needs but they might also notice how they become less able to remember things and make complicated decisions.
Dads experience hormonal changes, too
It’s well-known that mothers experience a flood of hormones during and after birth. Research has also found that new dads undergo hormonal changes too.
New dads who spend time caring for their babies, experience an increase in oestrogen, oxytocin, prolactin and glucocorticoids. This hormonal shift, especially the rise in oxytocin levels (a hormone known as the ‘cuddle hormone’) means that new fathers are more primed to show love and affection to their babies.
When the bond doesn’t come immediately
The dads in the Yale study were very involved with childcare and researchers believe that the brain changes that occurred were because of this closeness. The new dads spent a lot of time caring for and cuddling their babies. For some dads though, this bond is not immediate.
It’s a hard thing to admit and to talk about. Talking to ABC news, one new dad opened up and revealed that he didn’t have an instant rush of love for his newborn baby. Instead, his overwhelming feeling was one of indifference, which made him feel ‘like a sociopath’. Henry, who didn’t use his own name said:
In the hospital, I just wasn’t connecting. I could have taken it or left it… My wife’s family, from the first day, was lavishing hugs and kisses on the new baby. I just wasn’t feeling it. It wasn’t for eight or nine months before I connected.
Leslie Seppinni, a marriage family therapist and clinical psychologist, commented on Henry’s story, explaining how some dads don’t feel a bond with their baby right away. She reassures dads that this is normal. But, because of the stigma, not many dads feel able to talk about it. She said:
It’s really normal, and it’s normal for the mother as well, which many people don’t know. It’s not automatic that you’re going to bond with your child. Usually it does take a little while. Fathers respond to the interactive qualities of kids. Until fathers start to sense something coming back from the child, some won’t feel that bond or connection.
The way to develop a closer bond with your baby is to spend lots of quality time with them. This is backed up by research, which showed that involved dad’s brains start to change to make them become more nurturing and to help strengthen this bond. Seppini said:
The best way to really bond with your children is through the day-to-day routine of sitting with your child, holding the baby, feeding it — even when you’re scared to death of it. Even if you don’t feel an emotion, it’s the day-to-day routine that lets you get a feel for it.
The more time you spend with your baby and the more cuddles you give, will mean that one day you’ll suddenly notice the magic happen.
Over time dads change
Talking about the Yale research Ruth Feldman, a psychology professor from Bar-Ilan University in Tel Aviv, told the Sunday Times:
It was already known that women’s brains develop the greatest number of new connections after childbirth.
We have now shown that fathers’ brains are sensitive to the experience of child-caring in those that are actively involved, but we don’t yet know what happens longer term.
Over the first few months of taking care of their baby they become wired to be better fathers.
Brain changes in new dads mirror what happens in new mums and, it turns out, that men are just as suited to parenthood as women.
- “Paternal Bond Could Come Slowly for Some Dads” By Dan Childs and ABC News Medical Unit
- “Men vs. Women: Our Key Physical Differences Explained”, Live Science
- “Dads Can Recognise Their Baby’s Cry Too, New Research Suggests” Video | Live Science
- “Fathers Recognize Their Babies’ Cries Just as Well as Mothers”, By Joseph Stromberg, Smithsonian