Father’s Day: How fatherhood changes a man’s brain

To mark Father’s Day, Global News talked to leading researchers studying how fatherhood changes a man’s health, not just physically but mentally. The Canadian Press/Able Images

TORONTO —As a bachelor, he could sleep through a fire alarm — now, he wakes up to his baby’s soft cries in the middle of the night. His testosterone levels cool off. Once relaxed, now worried. He’s looking after the survival of another human being after all. It takes him a few weeks to get the hang of it, but a man grows into the role of fatherhood pretty well.

But men don’t have the same head start on parenthood the way women do. For starters, they aren’t pregnant for nine months, they don’t deliver their offspring and they don’t breastfeed, all events that prime moms for the lifelong bond they’ll have with their child.

But dad is there, alongside every step of the way. “Fathers are responding to many cues from their partners — olfactory, pheremonal, gustatory,” Dr. Craig Kinsley told Global News.

Then, there’s their child — or their ‘investment,’ in survival terms.

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“Dads play an integral role in the parenting care and protection of their young…once he sees that baby looking at him or grasping his fingertip, and realizing that he or she is his child. It’s a rush,” Kinsley, a father of two, explained. Kinsley’s also a University of Richmond neuroscientist.

To mark Father’s Day, Global News talked to leading researchers studying how fatherhood changes a man’s health, not just physically, but mentally. Research on men’s health in the early stages of parenting is fleeting compared to moms, but the findings paint a pretty cute picture of a dad, throwing himself into perhaps the biggest job he’ll ever take on.

READ MORE: Mother’s Day – How motherhood changes a woman’s brain

“My experience of holding our baby daughter is really transcendent and arresting, perhaps ineffable,” according to Dr. James Swain, who became a father to a baby girl just over a month ago.

“Some have written about this and even suspected that the experience may share something with religious or spiritual experiences. When she is upset, hungry, uncomfortable, I feel great empathic concern,” the University of Michigan professor, described.

It’s only been a matter of weeks for the Canadian neuroscientist, but he’s riding a rollercoaster of emotions, “complete with high hopes and terrible worries,” as he puts it.

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And it involves a pretty steep learning curve.

Brain imaging data suggests that dads aren’t as responsive as mothers to their baby’s cry at the two-to-four-week period, but by 12 to 16 weeks, their responsiveness has improved, according to Swain.

“We have good evidence that fathers, like mothers, experienced heightened ‘obsessive-like’ anxiety about the safety of their baby,” he explained.

READ MORE: How a father’s diet, lifestyle affect his baby’s healthy development

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In new research about to be published, Dr. Pilyoung Kim documents how daddy’s brain transforms as fatherhood sets in.

His testosterone levels are reduced, so he’s less aggressive and his mating instincts taper off. The reward and motivation regions of the brain grow, making way for those feel-good chemicals to flood their system.

“Those structural changes help increase fathers’ experience with their babies during the postpartum period, that’s our speculation,” Kim, a University of Denver neuroscientist, explained.

In animal literature, these transformations are critical for men to express their paternal behaviour. “It’s exciting to see [in humans],” she said.
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Women go through the same thing as their bodies gear up for motherhood. Kim hasn’t noted shrinkage in parts of the brain in women, but in her latest research, she did in men.

READ MORE: Newborn baby’s smell is as addictive as drugs or food, study says

It was in the orbitofrontal cortex — used in critical thinking and decision-making. It’s activated most when we’re stressed, or trying to decipher ambiguous information, Kim explained. So why did this part of the brain shrink in new fathers?

“We were surprised at the findings at first but when we looked more closely it made sense,” she said. As a dad decoded what his baby’s smile, laugh and cry (maybe even smell) meant, perhaps their worries faded away.

“After the first few months, fathers would learn that they can manage the anxiety and stress associated with parenting. It’d become less uncertain,” Kim told Global News. Their increase in the reward centre may also mean that they’ve prioritized the reward centre over using this stressed-out portion of the brain, she posited.

But it’s a gradual process. Kim said that it can take almost a full year for dads to feel emotionally attached to their babies, unlike moms whose connection is almost instant and visceral. It might be because traditionally, men would immediately go back to work, instead of rearing their child, nursing him, cleaning up after him.

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READ MORE: Want your daughter to break barriers? Dads should do chores, study says

(Dad can go into the office and focus on work, unlike mom who, according to one study, thinks of her new baby every seven minutes. The researchers suggest that it’s because dads know their partners are diligently looking after the safety and survival of their child. Instead, he can worry about providing for his brood.)

If dad puts in the work, his bond with baby flourishes, though. Take Dr. Ruth Feldman’s research, for example.

The researcher at the Bar-Ilan University in Israel, in a recent study out last month, showed that dads who spent more time with their newborn encountered emotions similar to what moms who were the primary caregiver went through.

It’s not as simple as watching the baby for 20 minutes while your wife showers, either.

“The amount of direct caregiving each father does, the amount of time he has alone with his child really having to give a parental role without mother, the more activation [in the brain] there was,” Feldman told Global News.
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Her findings are based on 20 moms who were the primary caregivers, 21 dads who were secondary caregivers and 48 homosexual dads who were primary caregivers in their committed relationships.

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The moms in the study had amygdala activity, the hotspot for memories and emotions like worrying, that was five times stronger than dads who took the passenger seat in parenting. Dads, on the other hand, had activity in their superior temporal sulcus – the part of the brain used to read faces and piece together speech.

If dads were the primary caregiver though, both “parenting” regions of the brain were activated.

Something to keep in mind: the division of labour in today’s households is changing. Dads cook, clean and some even stay at home to look after the kids.

“The more fathers are going to take an active role the more we’ll see the brain changes we’re talking about. Father’s brain and mother’s brain are going to be much more comparable,” Feldman explained.

If changes to his brain were happening to Kinsley, he didn’t feel it.

“I do remember how incredibly satisfying it was, how good it felt to cuddle my kids, to hold them. A smile had a huge effect on me too, and I remember the literal physical warmth it brought,” he explained.

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While mom and baby share a kindred connection, the researchers are certain dads are crucial too.

“At the risk of sounding defensive, father-baby bonds can be just as intense,” Swain said.

Canadian scientist Dr. James Swain with his newborn daughter. (Photo courtesy Dr. James Swain). Photo courtesy Dr. James Swain

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