Father and Baby Bonding. Not quite like Mom/baby bonding.

It’s odd that I’ve posted so little about fatherhood here. I cut my teeth writing for and about fathers and, over the course of my career I’ve written more about fatherhood than anything else.

But it’s research – bad research, bad media reporting of research and interesting research – that has driven this blog for the past year. And the other day I stumbled on the coolest research finding about fathers that I’ve ever seen (and I’ve seen lots).  I know that most of you who read this blog are mothers, but I think this finding will be of interest to you too.

This finding comes from the research of Ruth Feldman, an Israeli psychologist who is one of the world’s leading attachment researchers, who did the first study that made the connection between oxytocin and human mothering. Well, the recent Feldman study that caught my eye was about mother and fathers. The purpose was to find out how playing and interacting with babies affects mothers’ and fathers’ levels of oxytocin, a hormone that plays an important role in human (and animal) parent-child bonding.

First of all, they found that men’s and women’s baseline hormone levels were the same, which is kind of interesting in itself because we tend to associate oxytocin with things like breastfeeding. But the fascinating finding from this study was that the kinds of interaction that boosted fathers’ and mothers’ hormone were very different.

Mothers’ oxytocin levels were tiggered by high levels of affectionate touch (cradling, kissing, caressing etc.). But what got the oxytocin flowing in dads was high levels of what the researchers called stimulatory touch – moving the baby around, more vigorous pats and strokes, playfully poking the baby with a toy or other object. That kind of touch did not affect mothers’ oxytocin levels and, likewise, affectionate touch did not affect fathers’ hormone levels.

I actually find it a little odd that affectionate touch didn’t turn on oxytocin in guys. When my kids were babies, holding them a lot really helped me to feel connected to them (obviously it helped them too). That was how we got comfortable and felt like we belonged together.

Of course more gentle kinds of touch, particularly holding or carrying a baby, are more central in the first few months of life. This study was done with 4 to 6 month old babies, who are much more able to respond to stimulating play than newborns and three-month-olds. Plus, the fathers in this study did way, way more of the stimulating kind of contact than the affectionate kind. I’d be interested to know what the researchers might have have found if they had measured oxytocin in fathers after holding, say,  2- month- old babies for at least 15 minutes.

But anyway, we have this finding that very different types of physical contact get the oxytocin flowing in men in women. What do we make of it? On one hand the study seems to reinforce gender stereotypes – mommies care and daddies play.

Ick.

Even though there is some truth to the idea of gender differences in parenting styles (quite a bit of truth, actually), I’m not a fan of promoting gender stereotypes in parenting. All the mothers I’ve ever known played with their babies, often in fairly stimulating ways. Mind you, anyone who has hung around with parents and babies can see that when fathers interact with babies they do tend to be more stimulating than mothers. In one of Feldman’s earlier studies they graphed the peaks and valleys of mothers’ and fathers’ interactions with babies. The mothers graphs looked sort of like gentle undulating waves. But the father’s graphs looked more stormy – high peaks and deep valleys. That rings true. I started rolling around on a bed with my firstborn when he was two months old. I was very careful about it and I would have stopped if he didn’t seem to like it. But he did seem to like it – in short bits at first. And that kind of play helped me learn about him – what he responded to, what he liked, what he didn’t like.

However, fathers are perfectly capable of being sensitive, affectionate caregivers. And in today’s world, where grandmothers, aunties and female neighbours are less available to help out with baby care, fathers need to become skilled, comfortable caregivers of babies.

But the real take home lesson from this study is that all that funnin’ around fathers do with older babies and toddlers is more than just fun and games (although it is fun and games). I’ve often heard mothers say, “Well, all he does with them is play.” While fathers do need to take on their share of the caregiving, playing should not be dismissed as frivolous. It is a really important part of fathers’ and kids ongoing bonding process. Bonding, attachment or whatever you want to call it, is not just something that happens one day and then becomes more or less set. It’s an ongoing process. And for (most) fathers and kids (because attachment is a two way street) play is a huge part of that. I’m sure play is important for mother/baby relationships too. It’s just that it seems more central to fathers.

But again, I don’t want to suggest that the only way for fathers and kids to connect is through play. Quiet snuggling, using a baby carrier and even changing diapers is part of it too. Bottom line, whatever kind of interaction helps you and your kid get to know each other and feel connected is a good thing. And, if we didn’t already know (I think we did know), Dr. Feldman’s study tells us that play is a really important part of father-child connections.

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About uncommonjohn

I am one of Canada's top parenting writers. My areas of expertise and interest include debunking bad parenting advice (especially about sleep), self-regulation, fatherhood, child development, children's mental health, childbirth and breastfeeding.
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11 Responses to Father and Baby Bonding. Not quite like Mom/baby bonding.

  1. silvereyes1945 says:

    Well, it makes sense that mothers have higher levels of oxytocin through touch when you consider that breastfeeding was the only way to keep baby alive for thousands of years before formula. In other cultures, mothers breastfeed until an average age of 4, and this was probably how it was done for centuries. Mothers in non-western cultures hold and carry their babies a lot more too. Mother’s higher oxytocin levels were crucial to a young child’s survival.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Agreed. And, similarly, it makes sense that the parent who historically spent less time in physical contact with the baby, might express oxytocin differently. It also seems logical, in an evolutionary sense, that the parent who is less totally invested in care, comfort, security, feeding etc. might develop a pattern of engaging in more activities that challenge babies and toddlers, help them explore and bring them “out into the world.”But, still, I can’t help but wonder if less active kinds of touch could come to trigger oxytocin release in men, if a man were to do lots and lots and lots of it. Research with gay fathers raising a child without a mother in the daily picture might help answer that question.

  2. Vivian says:

    I always joke with my husband that if he could lactate, our baby would never come to me. lol They have a great bond and I’m finding he prefers Daddy as playmate.

  3. Wendy says:

    Interestingly there is no mention here of the involvement of vasopressin in the father’s response to proximity and cuddles to the children. This has been shown to have more involvement than oxytocin in fathers in relation to bonding and connection although there is a surge of oxytocin in mean leading up to the birth. Vasopressin appears to take over after that.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Hi Wendy: I have not come across this before except with respect to research in animals. Can you tell me where you heard/read about this?

      Thanks,
      John

      • I read it some time ago and can’t recall off the top of my head who was writing about it. It doesn’t seem to be widely talked about. I did think it relates to human research but again I may have interpreted that and it was an extrapolation from animal research. When I have the chance I will so some searching and let you know what I find. Thanks for the article – great to have the spotlight on Daddy bonding!

      • uncommonjohn says:

        I did a quick bit of searching today and everything I found had to do with animal studies. I’ve seen a fair number of articles about parent hormones that are based on animal research. I guess it’s relevant but I’m really only interested in human studies.

  4. DiCJames says:

    Ian Martin is incorrect. I have not tweeted about this article, nor endorsed or criticised it, and I have made no comment on any other views on it.

  5. This iarticle is quite informative, but as a dad I found a lot of closeness to my children when they were babies. I loved walking them up and down and ‘winding’ them on my shoulder. I found myself to be very protective of them and loved the sweetness of their smell. I also had no qualms about changing nappies or washing them (no diapers). I don’t understand the sentiment “I’m not a fan of promoting gender stereotypes in parenting”. I had to go out to work, so couldn’t be there all the time. Stereotyping of parenting roles worked for us and neither objected to it. The main thing that I object to in stereotyping is in casting mothers as ‘Main Carer’ and effectively assigning dads to secondary parents. There is no way that fathers should be automatically relegated to the ‘less important role’ in a child’s life just because of gender prejudice.

    • uncommonjohn says:

      Thanks for your comments James. I think you misunderstand what I mean about stereotypes. The choices that any given parenting couple makes could never be interpreted as promoting gender stereotypes in parenting (or not). Promoting stereotypes would be saying that all fathers should all parent in what we think of as a male way and that all mothers should parent in what we think of as a female way. The way in which any given couple choose to divide roles is up to them and, hopefully, works for them. So I wouldn’t want this study to be spun as proving that fathers can’t or shouldn’t be gentle and nurturing caregivers.

      • Thank you for clarifying stereotyping. I would agree with you that it should be up to parents to decide what works best. I do not think it is for others to criticize those parents who happen to fall into the perceived stereotypical role. For me, I would have been quite happy to have been the stay-at-home parent, but I was the one with the professional qualifications and thus it was economically more sensible to go to work to provide for my family.

        I have always been an advocate for fathers play-wrestling with their toddlers and children. It is a great bonding tool and also teaches children how to engage in vigorous activities whilst controlling their strength so as not to hurt others. Mothers can gain some pleasure from seeing dad and children playing. I am pleased to say that all three of my children are now young adults with happy and mature personalities and, they still like playing together.

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