Yes Virginia, fathers have hormones too

Here’s yet another study that shows that being a father, or more to the point, acting like one, affects men’s hormones. This one was a study of Filipino fathers, led by Lee Gettler, a former student of James McKenna, the renowned co-sleeping researcher from the University of Notre Dame. Gettler found that dads who co-slept with their babies – that is, shared the same bed or mat with Mom and baby, something that is the norm in the Philippines – had lower levels of testosterone than fathers who did not sleep on the same surface as their babies.

This is consistent with other research, some of it Canadian, that has shown that becoming a father, caring for babies and even just having a pregnant partner can affect men’s levels of, not only testosterone, but also prolactin and cortisol.

People get all gaga about these studies every time they come out and act as if they are revolutionary. But, none of it comes as any surprise to me. My eldest son just turned 28, but I still remember the effect he had on me when I held him as an infant.  At the time I was convinced that something biological was going on. I described it in various ways – often as a kind of falling in love. And while I wasn’t thinking in terms of hormones, I was convinced something chemical was happening inside me.  I even used to imagine that some kind invisible, unnamable something was passing back and forth between us when we were in physical contact. I recall saying, or maybe I wrote this once, that we were exchanging little chemicals, or electric impulses that scientists would someday be able to measure.

So maybe this was just my hormones (probably Riley’s too) talking, as they tried to support us in developing a father-child bond (I’ve never really bought the idea of the instant bond).  I knew nothing about hormones then. I know a little bit now, enough to know that hormones don’t so much make us do things as people are fond of saying, but, rather, try to support us in what we need to do. If a father needs to defend his family from wild animals or hunt for food his body supports him with shots of adrenalin. If, as is often the case, in the modern western world, he needs to bond with his baby (and, hopefully, support his partner) his hormones won’t do it for him, but a little boost of prolactin, one of the hormones that helps mothers make milk, will help him be receptive to that activity. And, some research seems to suggest that the more he does these things, the more hormonal support he gets.

This dovetails with one of my original theories about fatherhood. I have always felt that becoming an involved father is a self-fulfilling prophecy. The more a father becomes involved, gets comfortable with his baby and develops baby skills, the more he will feel good about doing it and the more he will want to do it. And, of course, the more he does it, the adept he becomes, and so on.

And I also believe that fathers who want to become involved have to make much more of a conscious decision to do so than mothers. For women, it’s, well, perhaps not quite automatic, but female socialization and biology (monthly reminders of their reproductive capacities, pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding) impel women into motherhood. It’s not like that for fathers. We have to take a more conscious step. I’m glad to know that hormones are there to help us.

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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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