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How Dads chemically fall in love with their kids

June 29, 2011

How Dads chemically fall in love with their kids — Phillip White

Oxytocin (OT) is the hormone of love.  Researchers have been discovering how chemicals are stimulating better fathering.  Male mammals for the most part have little to do with fathering their young.  Human beings are part of the 5 percent that do (Geary, 1999).  After reading several articles (see references below, it is clear to me that fathers can be proactive in bonding with their children, but not in the same way women bond with their offspring.

Of primary importance is how men touch their children.  A study published in 2010 (Zagoory & Leckman, 2010) had this to say:

  1. Parental touch during the first months of life is critical for the infant’s growth and survival and the neuro-endocrine pathways that support parental touch behaviors in humans are thus of central importance in healthy families and in families of high risk to the parent–infant bond, such as following premature birth or when mothers suffer postpartum depression.
  2. Research on OT in humans has pointed to the role of OT in initiating the “touch circuitry” between parents and infants and among couples. Warm contact and touch between couples was associated with increased OT levels and  infant tactile stimulation of the mother’s nipples during breastfeeding resulted in increased maternal OT release; and intense parental touch during parent–infant interactions correlated with an increase in maternal and paternal OT .

 This study was not as detailed as another study, which clearly showed the oxytocin (the “love hormone) was elevated differently in men and women after their children were born.  For mothers, they found that a type of touch, described as affectionate touch, was generating higher levels of oxytocin.  For men they saw little increase when the men were holding, rocking and the like.  But when men were interacting with stimulatory touch, the men also had raised levels of oxytocin – yet for women this did not trigger increases in the hormone.  The authors (Feldman, et. al 2010) write:

Among fathers, only those exhibiting high levels of stimulatory contact showed an OT increase.  These results demonstrate consistently in the neuroendocrine basis of parental interactions with those seen in other mammals.  The findings underscore the need to provide opportunities for paternal care to trigger the biological basis of fatherhood and suggest that interventions that permit social engagement may be recommended in conditions of diminished maternal-infant contact, such as prematurity or postpartum depression.

What appears clearly to me after reading these studies is that men can do something in their development as fathers that will help them bond with their infant children.  Mothers should not expect men to feel and act the same as they do, because there are significant different chemical triggers for how men release their love hormones.  Men need to play and interact with their developing children.  They need to touch them but more along the lines of giving piggy backs, shoulder rides, friendly wrestling; holding their hands when they are learning to walk, holding them while they read them stories, taking them to parks and museums to explore the world around them.  These things are going to help them bond with their children.  When they are small, men can carry them in back carriers and take them on walks; at least they are in contact, rather than carried in a car seat or stroller.  Dads can give their children baths too.  As the babies grow, so does the opportunity for dads to bond with them.

Love Hormone

You might wonder if this is not a chicken and the egg scenario.  The answer for the question to me is that the hormones follow the activity, so the bonding can be a learned behavior, and the bonding is the result of that behavior, stimulated by the hormones released and not the other way around.  That is exciting, for dads who want to really bond will take the time to get involved with their children.  The more engaged they are the more they will release the love hormone, which only encourages greater bonding.  That can’t but be healthy for a forming family.

Works Cited

Feldman, R., Gordon, I., Schneiderman, I., Weisman, O., & Zagoory, S. (2010). Natural variations in maternal and patrnal care are associated with systematic changes in oxytocin following parent-infant contact. Psychoneuroendocrinology.

Geary, C. C. (1999). Evolution and proximate expression of human paternal investment. Psychological bulletin, 55-77.

Zagoory, G. I., & Leckman, O. S. (2010, Dec. 2). Oxytocin, cortisol, and triadic family interactions. Physiology & Behavior, 679-684.

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