Does Fatherhood Change a Man? (The Fatherhood Effect)

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Wondering if having children changes men?

You're in the right place :)

In this edition of Baby Schooling we'll be going over:

  • The main changes men go through when becoming a father
  • If fatherhood impacts the male brain
  • Behavioral changes in men when becoming a father
  • Hormone level changes in new fathers
  • And the Couvade Syndrome (something you might not have heard of!)
The Fatherhood Effect

Everyone knows that women undergo massive physical, psychological and hormonal changes when having babies but…

Do men go through a similar change?

Let’s find out!

Does Fatherhood Change a Man?

Men are impacted by becoming fathers in a number of ways and although you may not actually be able to see it happening, changes start to occur before the baby is even born.

No, we’re not talking about the initial excitement (or, in some cases, blank-faced shock, followed by excitement) and we’re certainly not talking about his sudden willingness to rub your feet and back – that’s the least he could do, after all!

We’re talking about real biological and psychological changes.

Interested? Let’s take a look at some of the highlights!

  • Hormone levels in men who live with their partners begin to change in the months leading up to the birth of their babies
  • Studies show that fathers may have lower testosterone levels than men who don’t have children
  • Hands-on parenting stimulates brain growth in dads (has there ever been a better reason for having dad change a diaper?!)
  • Dads who take part in the everyday care of their children develop neurological pathways similar to those found in the brains of moms
  • Fatherhood may cause men to take fewer risks

Can Fatherhood Have an Impact on The Male Brain?

Want dad to help out with diaper changes and late-night feeds more often? Science has got your back!

Hands-on parenting by fathers has been shown to boost growth in certain areas of the brain.

According to neurological studies, our brains are designed to adapt to the stimulus provided by our environment and circumstances and this holds true for dads, too – proving you definitely can teach an old dog new tricks!

We’ve all heard the saying “having a child forces you to grow up” and groundbreaking research shows that there might be more to this old adage than you thought.

pregnancy changes male brain

Studies show that pregnancy can affect the male brain.

Studies show that actual growth occurs within the areas of the brain that are involved with parenting when fathers take on a more active role. These astonishing changes were apparent in as little as 4 months following birth.

The hypothalamus (an area responsible for sensitivity) showed an increase in gray matter, while there was a notable decrease in the orbitofrontal cortex (which regulates stress and cognitive processing) at the same time. Growth was also seen for the first time in the lateral frontal cortex, the area of the brain that encourages fathers to experience an emotional connection with their babies.

Can Fatherhood Reduce Risky Behavior?

According to a study spanning over the course of 19 years, becoming a dad may lead men to take fewer risks.

This is no doubt encouraging news for those ladies who’ve already bagged themselves a bad boy and are holding their rapidly expanding bellies, wondering if he’ll be able to cut it as a dad, but…

For those of you who can’t resist a rebel (it’s hard, we know!), don’t throw all caution to the wind just yet – there are always other factors involved.

The study, led by Dr David Kerr, an Oregon State University psychology professor, observed the behavior and development of 200 at-risk boys, from the age of 12-31. Changes in behavioral factors such as crime, tobacco, alcohol and marijuana use were noted throughout all stages of adolescence and early adulthood.

risky behavior reduced men pregnancy

While these bad habits were shown to lessen in frequency in some cases simply by “growing up” and getting married, fatherhood was shown to have a particularly powerful effect on some men. Specifically, men who had children in their mid 20’s to early 30’s (rather than in their teens or early 20’s) showed the greatest reduction in risky behavior.

“This research suggests that fatherhood can be a transformative experience, even for men engaging in high-risk behavior,” said Kerr.

Can Fatherhood Change Hormone Levels in Men?

If you’ve ever found yourself joking about your partner becoming more hormonal than you during pregnancy, you’re not far off – it turns out men also experience fluctuations in certain hormones.

Testosterone Changes

This hormone directly impacts levels of aggression, in both men and women.

During pregnancy, women experience a spike in testosterone which gradually declines after giving birth. Raised testosterone levels in pregnant women are thought to be associated with the growth factors involved with pregnancy and also the increased need to provide protection for babies after birth.

Men naturally have higher levels of testosterone than women. Recent studies show that men who have or are expecting children generally display lower levels of testosterone than men who don’t. This decline in testosterone levels in fathers is thought to help with the bonding process between father and child by decreasing aggression and sex drive, making men more likely to focus on the baby’s needs.

Lowered levels of testosterone are good news for moms too –  along with an increased ability to focus on the baby’s needs, a decrease in this hormone also makes for more fathers who are more supportive of their partner’s needs. A win-win situation for everyone, in our opinion!

Estrodiol Changes

Estradiol is associated with maternal behavior. All women experience significantly raised levels of this hormone during pregnancy and it is thought that these increases facilitate care and bonding.

Lowered levels of estradiol in men with children require further studies, but it may be linked to a decrease in testosterone, which is needed for the production of this hormone in men.

One study conducted on the hormone levels of couples throughout their first pregnancy shows that in the months leading up to the birth of their children, some men experience a noticeable drop in testosterone and estradiol (a form of estrogen) – hormones, which play an important role in regulating libido in men.

Not surprisingly, those who showed larger decreases in testosterone, a hormone commonly linked with aggression in men, reported being more hands-on with their offspring following birth and were also more considerate of their partner’s needs as new parents.

Interestingly, the same study showed no decline in these men’s levels of the stress-related hormones, progesterone and cortisol. It’s important to note that women experience increases in all four hormones during pregnancy. The levels of these hormones in the men participating in the study, whether high or low, were generally matched by their pregnant partners’ levels. This is likely due to the similar levels of stress and excitement felt by both parties during pregnancy.

Sympathetic pregnancy symptoms – are they real?

Couvade Syndrome and Men (What is it and is it real?)

Have you ever heard of this before?

Couvade Syndrome (aka “sympathetic pregnancy) is a condition in which a man will have similar symptoms and adopt similar behaviors as an expectant mother.

These symptoms and behaviors can include weight gain, varied hormone levels, nausea, and interrupted sleep schedules.

Here’s a quick video to give you an idea of what we mean.

To help prove this out, a study published in 2013 conducted on 143 expectant fathers found that the most commonly experienced physical symptoms of sympathetic pregnancy in these men were weight gain, changes in appetite, and flatulence.

While the whole idea of Couvade Syndrome sounds a bit like a conspiracy on the behalf of men to make their presence known during their partner’s pregnancy (and as a handy excuse to eat whatever they want, too!), researchers have noted that there likely is a link between empathy and the physical manifestations of symptoms (ever hold your own head/knee/elbow/toe after seeing someone you love hurt theirs?).

Although it’s easy to see why certain symptoms of this phenomenon may certainly be experienced by particularly empathetic men (bless their sweet souls), the original source of sympathetic pregnancy symptoms still makes us wonder…

The very first cases of sympathetic pregnancy were observed among primitive tribes in which the father was made to mimic pregnancy and labor in an effort to ward off evil spirits. These men would refrain from such activities as hunting and eating certain foods. Other studies point to psychological reasons for the manifestation of pregnancy symptoms in men. Either way, these studies are less than convincing.

While sympathetic pregnancy symptoms may or may not be real, it’s clear that fatherhood really does change men – and for the better too!

Hmm, does anyone knows if having multiple children leads to further improvement? 😉

About The Author

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Review By Tamara May

Tamara is one of our many parents who contribute to She has years of experience with toddlers and babies. With her loving husband, she has 4 kiddos.
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