Saturday, October 18, 2008

Being a daddy makes you kinder and smarter ~ from the U.K Times Online

October 18, 2008

Being a daddy makes you kinder and smarter

Motherhood is thought to make women brighter, faster and more spatially aware. Now scientists believe that the birth of a baby also gives men a welcome boost

How becoming a father makes you smarter.

What transforms footloose, feckless men into switched-on, dedicated fathers? (ed note: This is an insulting and hasty generalization of all men. mjm.) Science is starting to discover that, just as nature prepares women to be committed mums, it can also make dads' brains significantly sharper and more empathetic. A study being presented next month to the Society for Neuroscience by researchers at Richmond University, Virginia, shows how hormone changes in motherhood seem to make women brighter, faster at solving problems and more spatially aware. But it's not only mums' minds that get chemically enhanced.

While the biology of fatherhood remains largely uncharted, a growing body of research shows how new dads undergo a series of hormonal changes that may boost their nurturing instincts, make them kinder, more concerned and attentive to the point of obsessiveness. And, because there's usually a downside in nature, the changes may also induce phantom-pregnancy symptoms and attacks of the baby blues.

Fatherhood triggers hormonal changes

In a surprising series of tests by Canadian scientists, up to 90 per cent of dads have reported pregnancy-like symptoms such as nausea, cravings and weight gain. Anne Storey, of Memorial University, Newfoundland, analysed 31 expectant men's blood and found that those with phantom-pregnancy symptoms had significantly raised levels of the hormone prolactin, which is named for its role in promoting lactation in women. It also prompts animals to build nests. Storey reports in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior how she also found that the boisterous male hormone, testosterone, falls in new and expectant fathers by as much as 33 per cent. It also decreases in response to an infant's cries and when men comfort their own child. The reduction, she suggests, may serve to encourage fathers to relate, rather than compete, with their children.

Men become more alert to a child's needs

The two hormones may boost male empathy in other ways. Research by the Toronto University researcher Alison Fleming shows that men with high prolactin levels are more alert to a baby's cry. Fleming has also found that new fathers with lowered testosterone levels feel more of a need to respond to their infants' bawling. The characteristically calming female hormone, oestrogen, plays a part, too, according to a report in the journal Mayo Clinic Proceedings. It reports that new fathers have higher levels than other men.

“The evidence suggests there is a biology of fatherhood,” says Barry Hewlett, an American anthropologist who has studied Aka hunter-gatherers in Central Africa for three decades and considers them hugely attentive fathers. Aka men spend almost half their time either holding their babies or being within reach of them. They let their offspring suck their nipples for comfort, Hewlett says.

But they're not just the tribal equivalent of metrosexual dads competing to know most about baby slings - Aka men take their babies with them when they go out to drink palm wine with their pals.

“They have their babies, but they are talking guy talk. It's amazing to watch,” says Hewlett, whose Aka studies sparked his interest in the role of hormones in fatherhood. He ran a study in the United States that took blood samples from fathers before they held their infants, and again after they had them on their chests for 15 minutes. Their prolactin levels went up.

They feel a real sense of responsibility

Jack O'Sullivan, the author of the BBC Guide To Fatherhood and He's Having A Baby, says his own experience and his discussions with thousands of dads make him a firm believer in paternal brain-shaping: “There are definite changes. I suffered an attack of 'provider fever' both times my children were born. I suddenly experienced a real sense of responsibility, of needing to work at having a secure job and a supportive income.” O'Sullivan, who founded the pressure group, Fathers Direct, adds: “These are instinctive feelings. I think that new dads should listen to those instincts, rather than be told by many parenting books that they don't actually know anything about childcare.”

But what sets off these hormonal changes? Here the research is scant, but two mechanisms may be responsible: the first is the environmental fact that men are meeting a new range of social expectations that can alter their brain functioning. The second agent is pheromones: the chemical messengers that all animals emit.

But it's not all good news

Classic studies show that women living together in dormitories have their menstruation cycles synchronised through pheromones. Similarly, a man and a woman who share intimate space may communicate chemical messages that cue a man to start getting parental. Certainly, men's brain-patterns do change. James Swain, a researcher at Yale University, used an fMRI scanner to examine 25 new dads' heads when they heard their infant crying or viewed a picture of their newborn. The scans showed activity strikingly similar to that seen in patients with obsessive-compulsive disorder symptoms.

New dads aren't mentally ill, but they do tend to fuss - often on typically male matters such as whether the car seat is strapped exactly right. Over-attentiveness can be one problem - and postnatal depression is another.

The Adelaide University researcher, Karina Bria, says about 10 per cent of fathers develop the disorder. “Many don't acknowledge it,” says Bria, who has conducted a national study on depression in first-time fathers. One man who isn't in denial, though, is Will Courtenay, a San Francisco psychotherapist who has launched after suffering the disorder following his son's birth in June. “These hormones coursing through our bodies can really wreak havoc on a man's functioning,” he says.

As far as Mother Nature is concerned that's small price to pay for turning millions of men into smart, caring parental partners.


My brain started working differently the day I saw my first daughter born eight years ago (Simon Crompton writes). But I never felt a hormonal change. I just know that if it's constant challenge that keeps your brain vigorous, I've been kicked into learning twice as much in the years since my children have been around as in the decade before.

Chiara, my eldest, let out a sigh of exasperation yesterday as she examined the contents of her cardboard “Build-your-own Tudor execution” set. “For goodness sake,” she harrumphed, “they call that ‘easy to assemble'! Look at how complicated it is, Dad.”

She sounded just like me, all those times I'd tried to assemble Ikea furniture. It made me laugh, and feel ashamed, and - like dozens of other things my two daughters say or do every week - a little more aware of myself, a little keener to learn new things. Chiara and Eathelin, 6, make me clever. Sometimes they do it by making me feel stupid first, like when they beat me at chess, or say they'd like me to teach them guitar, and I become excited about learning something that I'd never got round to in the past. Sometimes it's hard to keep up with the pace of mental and moral challenges they set.

Why is swearing bad? How do I abridge an eight-page story into a five minute pre-bed reading slot? What does saying sorry really mean? How the hell does this maths homework work?

Of course, sometimes you don't feel equal to the challenge. The other day I saw a picture of myself eight years ago, when Chiara was born, and it was a shock. Obviously I looked thinner, and younger, but also more twinkly, less tired. The world contracts into your home after you've had kids, and time and tasks have to be carefully negotiated. There's less scope for you and your partner to chart the course you want, and you have to start seeing yourself as defined by how your family react to you. It's not always easy.

But at a time in life when it would be tempting for a chap to settle down into his mental sofa, kids keep prodding you. Thanks, girls, for pointing out my failings, teaching me that clever way of doing your nine times table, and not letting me stand still.

Father figures:


average age for a first-time father


of new fathers in the UK work flexi-time to spend more time with their infants


current rate of weekly paternity pay (or 90 per cent of earnings, whichever is lower)

2 weeks

maximum amount of paternity leave


of children live with single parent father

Sources: ONS, Personnel Today, British Employment Law, Civitas, The Fatherhood Institute

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