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Dad brain: The science of fatherhood

father playing with his baby

Dads instinctively know how to parent. Here’s the research to prove it.

When you become a parent, your life changes forever. And so does your brain. While many women can relate to the “rush” of love felt immediately after birth, men are taught to believe that this chemical change is unique to women. We’re here to tell you, however, that’s not entirely true. Studies show that men –just like women– are primed for parenting. The dad brain is a thing.

Even before a child is born, cohabitating couples start to demonstrate a synchronized increase of oxytocin –also known as the hormone of love and bonding– during pregnancy. Physiological changes occur as a way of unifying a couple as they prepare for the birth of their child. But after a baby is born, those changes continue –for both men and women. Although it’s true that women experience a powerful surge of oxytocin right after childbirth, scientists have found that men who interact with their children experience a rise in oxytocin levels, too. It just takes a little bit longer: four to six months, specifically. In fact, when men interact with their babies from a young age, they demonstrate oxytocin levels that are exactly the same as women’s by the time a child is six months old.

For this rise in oxytocin to occur, however, interaction is key. Men must hold and play with their children frequently in order to experience these brain effects. Play, specifically, is vital. “It’s always a bit of a cliché that dad’s the fun parent and mom does all the work, but actually dads are supposed to play,” Dr. Anna Machin, evolutionary anthropologist at Oxford University, says. “If you squirt oxytocin up a parent’s nose, you will actually see an increase in playful behavior among fathers and an increase in nurturing behaviors in mothers.” This isn’t to say mothers should be doing all of the tedious nurturing tasks like changing a diaper or blowing a nose. For many moms, nurturing means hugs, kisses, and cuddling. But for dads, play is how they are biologically-wired to show love and bond with their children.

Interaction is good for the whole family. When dads interact with their children early on, the effects are felt for a lifetime. Studies show that babies whose fathers interact more with them have better grades in school (Gottfried 1988) and demonstrate socio-emotional intelligence and resiliency later in life (Dubowitz 2001; Zimmerman 1995). Plus, an involved dad helps mom be more patient, flexible, and sensitive to their baby’s needs (Belsky, 1981; Cowan & Cowan 1987; Feiring & Lewis, 1978). Here’s how to start bonding and interacting from day one.


Bonding tips for dads:

For newborns/babies:

  • Kangaroo your baby: Starting at birth, hold your baby to your chest. Both dad and baby should have exposed skin. Babies crave this skin-to-skin contact and love their dad’s scent!
  • Sing to your baby: Even before birth, dads should start talking and singing to their baby. Babies can hear in the womb starting at around 18 weeks, so try and speak, read, or sing to your baby every day.
  • Massage your baby: Giving your baby a massage releases oxytocin for the both of you. Plus, it can help with things like colic!

For toddlers:

  • Play together: Any kind of play, whether that be with toys or patty-cake, helps strengthen your bond. Get silly, play make-believe, tickle, aeroplane around the room, etc.
  • Rough-and-tumble with your child (aka wrestling): As long as you do this safely and are not near any sharp corners or hard surfaces, light wrestling has shown to be an efficient way to bond.
  • Read together: Any time you spend with your child is valuable. One easy way to do this every day is to read a bedtime story.


Riley Stevenson is a writer and teacher from Portland, OR with a Masters in Media Studies and Education. She’s certified as an English as a Foreign Language instructor and Trauma-Informed Care provider. Riley spent five years working as a language arts teacher in Oregon public schools, where she served as a lead curriculum consultant. She’s interested in the development of early language skills, especially in the area of second language acquisition.

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