New research shows a clear link between good fathering and hormones associated with sexuality. Men with lower levels of testosterone (the well-known “male” hormone), and high levels of prolactin (the hormone which stimulates milk production in women), were found to be more nurturing and better suited to deal with the needs of demanding infants.
Alison Fleming, a U of T professor of psychology at Erindale, headed the study. “Having studied parental behaviour in animals in the past, I became particularly interested in the physiology of parenting. A lot of research is being done on parenting in humans, but mainly on new mothers. I wanted to study the same issues in fathers,” she said. “I was interested in exploring the effects of experience and hormones on parenting ability.”
The study was conducted at St. Joseph’s Hospital, where batches of new fathers, experienced fathers and non-fathers were exposed to recorded sounds of babies screaming, from hunger or from circumcision (needless to say, the latter cries were more acute). The men then filled out a questionnaire, rating their emotional responses from “not at all” to “extremely” for a list of words, including annoyed, disturbed, distressed, delighted (which, thankfully, few chose), sympathetic, and irritated. Their heart rates and hormone levels were measured for forty minutes after hearing the cries.
Fleming found men with lower testosterone and higher prolactin levels were more sympathetic and felt more of a need to respond to the cries. She also found experienced fathers were far more positive in their reaction to cries than were new fathers or non-fathers. “Clearly,” she said, “experience and physiology both play a crucial role in men’s abilities to father.”
Studies in women have found similar results. Hormones (such as cortisol, which is associated with stress) and maternal experience both contribute to a woman’s capacity to respond to her children. This is not surprising, as people are generally better at handling a second child, having already been through the wringer of parenthood.
One might be tempted to conclude that more effeminate, less masculine men make better fathers. “There is absolutely no evidence of an endocrine [hormonal] difference between effeminate men and non-effeminate men,” she said, “whatever those definitions are supposed to mean. Less testosterone does not necessarily imply being less ‘masculine.’ What is at issue here is men’s ability to take care of their babies. It is important to convey that the issue of experience is important—experienced fathers can be equally as responsive as mothers.”
But while fathers can be just as responsive, the sexes are not equal. Women, for example, respond with feelings of “nurturance” and “sympathy” when asked to sniff T-shirts worn by babies. The men studied did not—it seems few of them wished to describe themselves as such after smelling dirty clothing. “Also,” added Fleming, “it did seem as though men tended, especially non-dads, to choose ‘irritated’ as their prime emotional response to the cries.”
So while women on the whole still seem to be better suited to care for children, it’s certainly possible for some men to be just as nurturing without sacrificing their machismo.