Dads’ bodies can respond to sensitive parenting through changes in testosterone and this can help make them even more caring, loving dads in those moments.
In many parts of the world, it is not hard to find men and women who think that fathers are bumbling parents, who simply do not have the right “make up” to patiently handle the challenges of caring for children, especially when they are little. While that picture of fathers is certainly not universal and dads’ roles vary around the globe, we are increasingly learning that dads’ bodies have the ability to respond to parenting roles, rather than them being totally unprepared for parenthood. The work my team and I have done has tracked young men through time, over about five years, and we have looked at how their testosterone—a key hormone for many functions in our bodies, including some of our behaviors—changes if they get married and have children.
We found that men’s testosterone declined quite a bit as they moved from the single non-father stage of their lives to becoming newly married and dads— in other words, men’s biology was adjusting to marriage and fatherhood. The next question was, do these changes in testosterone matter for men as dads?
We know that testosterone helps increase competitive behavior and likely affects the brain in a way that could increase angry reactions, if men are challenged. Meanwhile, there are hints that lower testosterone relates to greater empathy—the ability to read and identify with someone else’s emotions. Building from those ideas, we showed that fathers’ testosterone and caregiving change together through time—if men increased their time in childcare, their testosterone went down. When other scientists watched fathers and infants together, dads with lower testosterone were more affectionate and sensitive with their babies.
These studies tell us that dads’ bodies can respond to sensitive parenting and their bodies’ responses can help make them even more caring, loving dads in those moments. So while dads do not go through pregnancy, birth, or breastfeeding, their bodies can and do change with nurturing, if they have the chance (and take it).