The neurobiology of fatherhood in humans seems to be similar to the neurobiology of motherhood, involving two brain systems – a “motivational” system that refers to the drive to nurture offspring, and an “empathy” system that refers to the ability to understand the thoughts and feelings of others.
Fathers shown pictures of their own newborns experienced more activation of empathy and reward systems than when shown pictures of unknown newborns.
For example, brain responses of mothers and fathers to pictures or videos of their infants overlap. Increased activity is found in parts of the brain associated with reward, motivation, and empathy. In one study, increased activity in brain reward systems also correlated with the father’s active engagement in caregiving, as reported by the mother.
In another study, fathers shown pictures of their own newborns experienced more activation of empathy and reward systems than fathers shown pictures of unknown newborns. In another study, a new father’s self-reported positive thoughts about his infant correlated with reward system activation in response to his infant’s cries. Future research will look at other brain responses in fathers – to children’s laughter, speech, and movements.
There is growing evidence that these changes are linked with the hormones that are produced when fathers care for their children. The key difference between human mothers and fathers is the degree of variability in fatherhood. After birth, most mothers are actively involved in parenting, but fatherhood is activated only when circumstances require or allow it, and even then it is highly variable.
When fatherhood is activated, neural processes take place in fathers that are similar to those in mothers.
In societies with small family units living apart from extended family networks and in families with scarce resources, paternal involvement is necessary. When fatherhood is activated, neural processes take place in fathers that are similar to those in mothers. It is as if a parental potential resides in all humans and is activated when circumstances require.
In the wild, fathers are actively engaged in caring for their young in only 5% of mammalian species (e.g., some primates, rodents, and canids, in particular). As in humans, this paternal behavior involves similar brain processes as those involved with maternal behavior. But when animals are held in captivity and in non-natural conditions, fathers can become more active. This suggests that parental brain systems may exist in many male mammals, and that they can be activated when an active paternal role is desirable or possible.
Key takeaways for caregivers Supportive fathers influence their children in significant ways, including the development of cognitive and social skills. The positive impact of fathers is greater when fathers’ relationships with mothers are strong and supportive. Fathers can help their children’s development through supportive and involved parenting and engaging activities, such as reading books and...
Key takeaways for caregivers Parents who work outside of the standard Monday-Friday, 9-5 hours must strike a balance between their work schedule and the demands of parenting. Fathers’ parenting is often influenced by non-standard work schedules and some types of work, such as night shifts, may increase certain types of parenting, whereas others may decrease...
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