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.
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.