How do dads bond with kids? It’s all in their heads

February 27, 2017 Providence Health Team

We already know that moms develop bonds with their children partly because of hormonal changes in their bodies during pregnancy and afterward. It turns out hormones also help dads bond with their kids.

An Emory University study mapped the brain activity of dads who were given the hormone oxytocin. As the fathers viewed photos of their 1- to 2-year-old children, brain scans found increased activity in the parts of the dads’ brains that have to do with empathy.

“Our findings add to the evidence that fathers, and not just mothers, undergo hormonal changes that are likely to facilitate increased empathy and motivation to care for their children,” said James Rilling, an Emory anthropologist and lead author of the study.

The magic hormone: Oxytocin

When mothers are giving birth or nursing, oxytocin is released into their bloodstream. Scientists say the hormone helps moms bond with their babies and produce milk.

The Emory study says oxytocin was “traditionally considered a maternal hormone.” But dads also can surf on a tide of oxytocin, the researchers found. Release of the hormone into the bloodstream helps foster their hands-on play with their children and helps synchronize father-child emotions.

The study also examined the role of vasopressin, another hormone believed to promote bonding, but found that it didn’t seem to make a difference in the dads’ brain activity.

But the clear connection between paternal bonding and oxytocin shows the hormone “might someday be used to normalize deficits in paternal motivation,” Rilling said.

Fathers and their children

The Emory study is significant because it taps into the relationships between dads and their kids. A healthy father-child bond has been shown to help children survive and thrive.

For that reason, in 2013, the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a broad study of “Fathers’ Involvement With Their Children: United States, 2006-2010.” It was a sweeping survey of fathers’ roles in traditional, nontraditional and blended families.

To measure the involvement of dads in the lives of kids under age 5, researchers counted how often fathers:

  • Fed their children or ate meals with them
  • Bathed, diapered or dressed their children or helped their children bathe, dress or use the toilet themselves
  • Played with their children
  • Read to their children

For older kids, ages 5 to 18, the questions focused on how often dads:

  • Talked with their kids about things that happened during the day
  • Ate meals with their children
  • Helped their kids with their homework or checked to make sure it was done
  • Took their kids to and from activities

Providence has many resources for moms and dads, starting with childbirth classes and continuing on through a child’s life. You can find a Providence provider in our directory.

What’s your favorite experience bonding with your kids?

Share your story in our comment section.

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