Fatherhood and the Brain

November 1, 2015

There are many studies about how maternity affects women, while fathers are often left on the sidelines for this kind of study. It doesn’t make much sense to continue limiting our knowledge about the effects of parenting to one gender. That’s why both Yale University and University of Denver conducted interesting studies that show how fatherhood changes a man’s brain. 

A brain scan was performed on a group of 16 new fathers just before their first child turned one month old. After 3 or 4 months, a second scan was conducted on these young fathers, whose average age was 36 years old.

Previous studies had shown that neuronal activity increased in fathers when they were faced with their children. This is due to the fact that from that moment on they are in charge of everything regarding their kids. The responsibility of raising a child puts the brain into alert mode.

When a man or woman becomes a parent, their brains start to become more alert, no matter where they are. In the mother’s case it’s understandable, since during the first few weeks the baby is by their side. They’re in charge of feeding, changing, assisting, etc. But in the father’s case, it’s not that obvious. Especially because most of them have to go back to work a few days after the birth of the child.

father watching sleeping baby

What do these studies prove?

These studies show for the first time that there are significant changes in the structure of the fathers’ brains when they’re not near their children.

When the second scan was performed, it confirmed that the volume of gray matter had increased in comparison to the first scan. That is to say, there’s an increase in comparison to before the first month of parenthood. The areas that expanded take part in diverse tasks: gratification, hormonal control, emotional processing, memory and decision-making.

This study also affirmed that the volunteers who took part in the test experienced a depletion of certain areas of the brain. The areas that suffered a reduction where those that become activated when one “disconnects” from the outside world. This means that the fathers’ ability to pay attention increased when they were given the responsibility of being fathers.

Other brain areas that also suffered a reduction were the ones linked to anxiety. In the last days of the pregnancy, men, as well as women, show a great “acceleration” due to the proximity of the birth. However, when the child is born, this effect disappears and both parents calm down. Later, other issues such as worrying and uncertainty emerge, but that’s another story.

Why do fathers experience these changes? 

It’s true that men now have a more involved role in the raising of children. This could be linked to a change that takes place in the brain. Unlike what happened in past generations, fathers are now more in charge of their babies. They change and feed them, put them to bed, take them to the park, accompany them to the pediatrician, stay with them while the mother goes grocery shopping, etc. This didn’t happen 20 or 30 years ago.

This has also generated post-partum depression in men. This is a disorder that was thought to only occur in women, but it’s now also being suffered by fathers.

The reasoning behind this feeling is still not understood, since supposedly the increase of certain areas of the brain eliminates the risk for depression and anxiety. But as we know, the mind will always remain a mystery.

We must recognize that the generational advance that has taken place in parental issues is immense. Even though they don’t bear their children for nine months, fathers now know the importance of the protection, love and affection given by a parent. Because before being fathers, all of them were once children.