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The Many Sides of Fathering

Lauren Poon's picture

There are several hormonal changes that occur in the mother and father prior to their baby's birth. Once the baby is born, physical contact between the parents and baby increase hormones levels that facilitate bonding and attachment. The brain and nervous system highly influences the primary experience of parental instinct. Most interestingly, the hormonal change of the father allows him to better bond with his child only when he lives in cohabitation with the expecting mother. Human culture and environmental factors tend to affect the definition of his “good” parenting. Variation in his parental bonding stems not only from hormone levels but also from his own personal choice and cultural background.

The new parents experience hormonal changes which alter their behavior. They begin to feel a parental instinct in preparation to care for their child. With the birth of the child, parents demonstrate a more loving and nurturing behavior. Hormonal changes are obviously prominent in the mother, but changes in the father depend highly on his physical presence and interaction with the pregnant mother.

In expecting parents, the changes in the hormones oxytocin, prolactin, and cortisol levels prepare them to care for, bond and protect their baby. Towards the end of the woman’s pregnancy, the mother’s high estrogen levels trigger the increase of oxytocin receptors. (1, 4) Oxytocin plays several roles, once of which includes the simulation and production of breast milk in the mother. In the case of parental bonding, oxytocin is released in response to social interactions with the child. A parent is also able to recognize the smell of the baby and begins to prefer the baby’s odor over other babies. (1) The parent begins to feel a more maternal instinct towards the new born baby. Secondly, the parents have an increase in prolactin which promotes care giving behaviors and directs their brains to favor these behaviors. Finally, cortisol levels nearly double in expecting parents. (2) Parents with high corisol levels better recognize their infant’s odor and are more aware of their baby’s cries. (5) Instinctive neural patterns of activity alter behavior in parents to direct attention away from themselves and towards the needs of  their child.

The mother’s increased hormone levels affect the sexual hormones of her male partner only when he cohabitates with her. Her increasing estrogen levels tend to affect those of the fathers, especially in the last three weeks of her pregnancy. Men naturally have relatively lower levels of estrogen, but during his partner’s pregnancy those levels increase. On the other hand, his testosterone levels decrease by 33% in order to reduce the aggressiveness of his protective instinct. (2) The father, as a result, is just as protective and territorial towards outsiders as we has before, but he becomes more sensitive or accepting towards his offspring. He is able to interact rather than compete with his child, which promotes a better living situation for the infant. (6) The man’s sexual hormone levels adjust to the presence of his own child.

Furthermore, oxytocin, prolactin, and vasopressin affect his behavior to demonstrate a more paternal instinct towards his baby. His oxytocin levels increase towards the end of his partner’s pregnancy. As seen in the mother, oxytocin also increases his dedication to the infant. Secondly, prolactin increases by 20% which stimulates the reward system for intimacy and family relations. Most importantly, males increase in vasopressin which make him more dedicated to his mate and also increase his need to protect his family. (2)

Along with hormonal changes in the brain, interactions physical interactions between parent and child create attachment and parental bonding after the baby is born. Mothers tend to more quickly have a physical connection with her child due to the hormones exchanged and stimulated before and after her pregnancy. Fathers, consequently, more often bond with his child emotionally and physically through hormonal and neurological activity in skin to skin contact after the baby’s birth.

As mentioned earlier, oxytocin is released during skin to skin contact. The father unconsciously familiarizes himself with his child’s odor and begins to prefer it. Similarly, his child learns to identify the father through smell. In order to smell, parent and child have to relatively close to each other. The infant begins to react to the father’s nearness and touch. (2) With the constant and close physical presence of the parent, the baby gains a sense of protection and trust with its parent.

Also released when the father holds his child is pheromones present in the skin. Both the father and child reach chemically towards each other. The father emits a certain odor that the baby soon associates with his touch and presence. (1, 2) The baby begins to prefer the smell of the father and is chemically attracted to him. Similarly, the father familiarizes his self with his own child through pheromones and feels a sense of ownership over the child.

Along with daytime cuddling, nighttime co-sleeping increases parent-child bonding. Hormones related in parental contact with the baby promote sleeping in the child. The baby feels more comfortable in the parent’s presence. When the baby wakes up at night, the baby finds the parent next to him or her. As a results, the baby develops a sense of trust and reliability of the father’s physical presence. (3)

Moreover, a parent’s general interacts with the baby increases its visual and auditory neurological stimulation. The child learns to recognize and memorize the parent’s face and voice. This type of learning prepares them for further sensory stimulation and identification. (4)

As seen in many aspects of nature, there is a high degree of behavioral variation. Human fathers have the potential to reach an average 33% decrease in testosterone, 20% increase in prolactin and twice the amount of cortisol during the last three weeks of the woman’s pregnancy and on into the first months of parenting. (2) Yet oftentimes, this potential to bond with the child is not met in all fathers. Fathers can be completeky absent in both the mother’s and baby’s life. As a result, the man never even goes through these hormonal changes. Even when the father does experience hormonal changes in response to the baby’s arrival and presence, he may chose not to bond or to raise his child. This relates to the “Harvard low of animal behavior” in which a human or animal under conditioned circumstances may still act however it chooses. (7) Humans demonstrate choice where they make a conscious decision to act against the supposedly natural course of parenting.

“Good parenting” as defined by supporting with the mother and bonding with his child is a culture opinion of a man’s proper paternal role in the family. In some cultures, the father provides for the family but is uninvolved in the raising and upbringing of the child. In this case, he experiences little hormonal changes in bonding with his child. Other times, “good parenting” is considered to be a communal effort which includes not only the father but people biologically unrelated to the child. Different interpretations of parenting affect how the father behaves. Most recently, the idea of father masculinity has changed by the rise in number of stay at home fathers. A few decades a go, fathers were not expected to play the same role in parenting as they are now. For example, fathers were once now allowed in birthing rooms with the mothers. (5) Also, more modern couples tend to announce, “We’re pregnant!” as the pregnancy is now seen as a more collective effort between both the expecting mother and father. Proper paternal parenting is comparative to environmental factors and the cultural environment.

When exploring the concept of adoption, fathers made conscious and unconscious decisions to bond to a biologically unrelated child. Under these circumstances, the adopted father is not the biological father of the baby. As a result, he generally is not undergoing hormonal changes with the expecting biological mother. Instead, an adopted father demonstrates close physical bonding with the infant after its birth. He makes a conscious decision to want to protect and care for a child even though he has no current hormone changes influencing this choice. There must be some innate neurological patterns that trigger internally the paternal instinct. Through methods such as skin-skin contact, hormone changes come after the father’s choice to be a “good parent” and raise a baby. The general process of paternal care does not have to be hormone changes then feelings of parental warmth towards the baby. Instead, it is entirely possible that his hormone levels can change internally and unconsciously after he has already made a conscious decision to be a “good” and loving father.

The I-function and primary experience associated with the parental instinct observes how parents unconsciously react to the stimulus of the baby. (7) Hormones influencing neural patterns of behavior who do not reach the I-function can easily explain this primary response. Then the person’s I-function tries to explain the reasoning behind the parent’s reaction to the stimulus. (7) However, primary experience does not seem that simple. Adopted fathers use the I-function to first initiate the beginning pangs of paternal care when choosing to adopt. The stimulus of a baby does not have to present, merely the concept of a baby. He seems to consciously already be generating neurological patterns of activity that create the paternal instinct. Then, once presented with the physical baby stimuli, the father’s paternal instinct creates neurological patterns of activity that do not reach the I-function. These are the increases and decreases of hormones generated through physical contact and bonding. Therefore, instead of primary experience being non I-function stimulation to I-function stimulation, adopted fathers first go through a conscious decision to raise a child, then unconscious hormonal activity, and conscious understanding of his actions. Human thought and choice perhaps account of the initial feelings and intuitions created before the primary experience.

The concept of the father’s role in parenting is a complex human endeavor. The man’s neurological patterns and behavior are subject to change depending on his personal choice to raise a child and the cultural expectation placed upon him by society. It seems inaccurate to define “good parenting” in magazine and in books because there is a wide range of variation. Parenting is a personal decision and experience that can only be judged to a certain extent by science.



1. : hormones involved in parent-child attachment

2. : research about fathers bonding to their new born baby

3. : benefits of co-sleeeping with your baby

4. : benefits of breastfeeding and skin-skin contact

5. : The Making of the Modern Dad, changed father’s role in parenting

6. : hormones involved in father bonding

7. Paul Grobstein lectures

Serendip Visitor's picture

Very Interesting

I'm sitting with my laptop next to my new born daughter and found this to be extremely interesting! I've found myself to be quite protective with my daughter. I've always been a very deep sleeper and was always worried I wouldn't wake up if my daughter cried. Strangely enough however the moment she makes a fuss I wake up almost instantly. Hence the reason I looked up this article. Thanks for the great read!