Can caring for a baby change a man’s brain?
Changing cultural traditions have given modern men a larger role in the care of their children and it may be changing their brain activity, experts say.
A new study in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the more a father cares for his newborn child, the more his brain looks and behaves like that of a mother.
Researchers recruited nearly 90 first-time parents, including primary-caregiving heterosexual mothers, secondary-caregiving heterosexual fathers, and homosexual fathers who are raising infants as primary caregivers in a committed relationship.
The parents were recorded as they interacted with their babies and later watched the video of themselves as researchers performed brain scans to see which regions of the brain would activate.
The results revealed clear differences between the brains of women who had taken a lead role in raising a child and men who had taken a supporting role.
While the mothers showed more activity in the amygdala and other emotion-processing structures while watching the videos, the fathers showed more activity in their superior temporal structures, a region of the brain involved in logical tasks.
However, for fathers that took on the primary caregiving role – in this case, as part of a committed homosexual relationship – both “parenting” regions of the brain become highly active, the researchers found.
The findings suggest there is a neural network in the brain dedicated to parenting and that it responds to changes in parental roles.
“Pregnancy, childbirth and lactation are very powerful primers in women to worry about their child’s survival,” said lead study author Ruth Feldman, in a news release. “Fathers have the capacity to do it as well as mothers, but they need daily caregiving activities to ignite that mothering network.
The more fathers are involved in active caregiving, the more the fathering network will activate the mothering network.”
And while some dads may be a bit intimidated by their newborn due to little baby experience, their involvement is crucial, says Jennifer Johnson, a perinatal education coordinator at Advocate Condell Medical Center in Libertyville, Ill.
“Research shows that fathers’ affection and increased family involvement help promote children’s social and emotional development,” Johnson says. “If you’re a rookie dad and feeling overwhelmed, take a class like ‘Boot Camp for New Dads’ for hands-on lessons in newborn care.”
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