- Mens’ prenatal brains could be used to predict their parenting style, according to a small study.
- Those with higher oxytocin levels in their blood had a more baby-led approach.
- This is the first study to analyze oxytocin levels and brain activation in fathers.
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Levels of oxytocin, the so-called love hormone, and activation in certain parts of the brain may help predict how men will behave as parents, a small study in Developmental Psychobiology showed.
A lot has been studied about the bond between new moms and their newborns, but this new study examined at 39 men during their partners’ pregnancy, and then again three months postpartum.
One test asked participants how or why a task was being done. During this test, an MRI recorded the areas of the brain that activated in the soon-to-be fathers. The men also provided blood samples to record their oxytocin levels, the hormone that in women triggers labor and lactation and in men has a role in moving sperm. Oxytocin is also associated with trust, empathy, and relationship-building.
Three months postpartum, the men returned for a parenting philosophy questionnaire.
According to USC Dornsife, the men whose brains showed more activation in the brain areas linked to “theory of mind” reported having a more empathetic parenting style postpartum. Theory of mind is the foundation for social interaction, helping predict needs and interpret behavior. These two things are key when dealing with infants, given their lact of verbal communication.
Those with greater theory of mind activation also had higher level of oxytocin in their blood. These fathers reported a more baby-led parenting style, following the cues of what a baby needs, and having more physical closeness.
So, by analyzing a man’s brain before he becomes a parent, we might be able to predict what his parenting style will be.
“Our study suggests that prenatal neural activation in theory of mind regions does seem to be related to a postpartum father’s self-reported endorsement of an intuitive parenting style,” said Sofia Cardenas, a psychology Ph.D. student at USC Dornsife and lead author of the study.
We still don’t fully understand how mens’ brains prepare to become parents, Darby Saxbe, associate professor of psychology and the corresponding author of the study, told USC. This study might help reframe the idea that mothers can connect with their newborns in ways fathers can’t.
“There’s really promising research suggesting that empathy can actually be trained and taught,” Saxbe said.