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Dad’s Postnatal Hormone Levels Predict Later Caregiving

Dad’s Postnatal Hormone Levels Tied to Caregiving

A new study finds that fathers’ hormone levels around the birth of their children is linked to how they will parent their child.

For the study, University of Notre Dame Assistant Professor of Anthropology Lee Gettler and lead author Dr. Patty Kuo, a visiting assistant professor of psychology, partnered with Notre Dame psychologists and Memorial Hospital of South Bend to analyze testosterone and cortisol in 298 men on the first two days of their newborns’ lives.

“Studies like this give us an understanding of the value of having the dad present at birth and engaging with the baby,” said Gettler. “What we see in the special days around birth is that dads’ hormones — how much dads are producing overall and how their hormones quickly change when they hold their newborns — are linked to what fathers are doing months later. This relates to how men establish bonds with their newborns as well as with their partners and how they will co-parent.”

According to the researchers, the large number of participants allowed Gettler and Kuo to examine how hormonal changes affect both new fathers and experienced ones.

Their research found that dads whose cortisol levels were elevated while they held their newborns on the day of their birth — either skin-to-skin or clothed — were more likely to be involved with indirect care and play with their infants in the first months of their lives.

They also tested men’s testosterone on the day of birth, but found that fathers’ later caregiving did not differ based on those levels.

However, if testosterone was lower on the second day of the infants’ lives, fathers were more involved in care, according to the study’s findings.

These findings align with existing studies, including Gettler’s research, the scientists noted.

For the study, labor and delivery nurses collected saliva samples from participating dads who held their babies approximately an hour after birth.

A follow-up survey completed by 180 of the original participants gave Gettler and Kuo insight into the level of care fathers invested in the first four months of their newborns’ lives.

While cortisol is sometimes referred to as the “stress hormone,” this study and others show that elevated cortisol is not always harmful, but helpful, the researchers pointed out.

“We tend to think of cortisol as a ‘bad’ hormone, but babies do require a lot of care and you do need to be vigilant,” Kuo said. “We think that elevated cortisol is a sort of orienting response that can help the body prepare for child care.”

It’s not surprising that cortisol level in dads is high on the day of birth. And, as long as it’s not chronically elevated, it can have benefits, according to Gettler.

Some data show that this is beneficial in moms as well, since it could make moms more prone to being responsive to their babies’ cues signaling hunger or illness, for example.

The study was published in the journal Hormones and Behavior.

Source: University of Notre Dame

Photo: Professor Lee Gettler holds his newborn son. Credit: Lee Gettler/University of Notre Dame.

Dad’s Postnatal Hormone Levels Tied to Caregiving

Janice Wood

Janice Wood is a long-time writer and editor who began working at a daily newspaper before graduating from college. She has worked at a variety of newspapers, magazines and websites, covering everything from aviation to finance to healthcare.

APA Reference
Wood, J. (2018). Dad’s Postnatal Hormone Levels Tied to Caregiving. Psych Central. Retrieved on September 29, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 6 Oct 2018 (Originally: 6 Oct 2018)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 6 Oct 2018
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