Tuesday, July 8, 2014

The Basic Elements of Paternal Bonding

Sometimes Dads may feel a little left out during the pregnancy and birth of their child. Afterall, during the first 9 months all the “action” is happening in mom! But fathers who spend time close to their wife during pregnancy undergo critical changes as well, that only continue once the baby is born. These changes ensure that Dad will be a committed protector and provider and play a critical role in helping a new infant develop emotional and social behaviors through healthy bonding.

Once born, baby's hormonal control systems and brain synapses begin to permanently organize according to the human interactions she experiences. Unneeded brain receptors and neural pathways are disposed of, while those appropriate to the given environment are enhanced. Fathers, you are essential to this new environment!

Oxytocin: A Bonding Hormone
Oxytocin is a chemical released in the brain providing health benefits and promoting bonding patterns that create desire for further contact with the individuals inciting its release. We tend to talk a lot about oxytocin in the mother, but father’s also have a significant role to play. 
For example, mother’s tend to prefer whichever male is closest during periods of high oxytocin release (pregnancy and labor!) In addition, prolonged high oxytocin in mother, father, or baby also promotes lower blood pressure and reduced heart rate as well as certain kinds of artery repair, actually reducing lifelong risk of heart disease.

Persistent regular body contact and other nurturing acts by parents produce a constant, elevated level of oxytocin in the infant, which in turn provides a valuable reduction in the infant's stress-hormone responses, and the resulting high or low level of oxytocin will control the permanent organization of the stress-handling portion of the baby's brain -- promoting lasting "securely attached" or "insecure" characteristics in the adolescent and adult. (Insecure characteristics include anti-social behavior, aggression, difficulty forming lasting bonds with a mate, mental illness, and poor handling of stress.)

When an infant does not receive regular oxytocin-producing responsive care, babies can develop permanent brain changes that lead to elevated responses to stress throughout life, such as higher blood pressure and heart rate.

It has also been shown that a live-in father's oxytocin levels rise toward the end of his mate's pregnancy. When the father spends significant amounts of time in contact with his infant, oxytocin encourages him to become more involved in the ongoing care in a self-perpetuating cycle. Oxytocin in the father also in-creases his interest in physical (not necessarily sexual) contact with the mother, encouraging the father to become more interested in being a devoted and satisfied part of the family picture –all through his involvement with the baby.

Vasopressin & Protection
Although present and active during bonding in the mother and infant, vasopressin plays a much bigger role in the father. This hormone promotes brain reorganization toward paternal behaviors when the male is cohabitating with the pregnant mother. The father becomes more dedicated to his mate and expresses behaviors of protection.

Released in response to nearness and touch, vasopressin promotes bonding between the father and the mother, helps the father recognize and bond to his baby, and makes him want to be part of the family, rather than alone. It has gained a reputation as the "monogamy hormone." Dr. Theresa Crenshaw, author of The Alchemy of Love and Lust, says, "Testosterone wants to prowl, vasopressin wants to stay home." She also describes vasopressin as tempering the man's sexual drive (not sexual functioning).

Vasopressin reinforces the father's testosterone-promoted protective inclination regarding his mate and child, but tempers his aggression, making him more reasonable and less extreme. By promoting more rational and less capricious thinking, this hormone induces a sensible paternal role, providing stability as well as vigilance.

Prolactin & Behavior
Prolactin is released in all healthy people during sleep, helping to maintain reproductive organs and immune function.

Prolactin promotes caregiving behaviors and, over time, directs brain reorganization to favor these behaviors . Father's prolactin levels begin to elevate during mother's pregnancy, but most of the rise in the male occurs after many days of cohabitation with the infant.
As a result of hormonally orchestrated brain reorganization during parenthood, prolactin release patterns are altered. It has been shown that fathers release prolactin in response to intruder threats, whereas childless males do not.

Elevated prolactin levels in both the nursing mother and the involved father cause some reduction in their testosterone levels as well, which in turn reduces their libidos (but not their sexual functioning). Their fertility can be reduced for a time as well. This reduction in sexual activity and fertility is entirely by design for the benefit of the infant, allowing for ample parental attention and energy. When the father is intimately involved with the infant along with the mother, there should be some accord between the desires of the two, and oxytocin and other chemicals provide for heightened bonding and non-sexual interest in each other, which serves to retain a second devoted caretaker for the infant.


Fathers are essential to a healthy mother and baby. Fathers foster healthy development by supporting and becoming equal partners with their mates, providing frequent skin-to-skin contact, holding, and offering facial cues for their babies. 

Play, smile, soothe, cuddle, bathe, and rock. Even if you feel new or clumsy as a new parent, all your efforts will pay off and help you to become a better father, and contribute to the healthy development of your child.


  1. We actually began the bonding process very intentionally during pregnancy by regularly reading a week-by-week development book. It is truly amazing to track the miracle that is taking place. It really made a difference for me even after birth, and it was great for my husband. He loved it! Now, there are a lot of great books and blogs out there to serve this purpose, but the one I'm reading now blows all the others away, and it's great for every pregnancy, not just the first. Not only does it have even more development details than usual, and personalized, it has a section in it where you can journal or write letters to baby. It's called “The Wonder Within You: celebrating your baby’s journey from conception to birth” by Carey Wickersham. It’s an awesome combination of week-to-week information, what’s going on with the baby, “Did you know?” plus health advice about what to eat, cravings, nutrition, etc, BUT also with awesome 3D/4D pictures and videos you can link or QR with your phone to and see what your baby looks like at each week stage. I've just not seen anything exactly like it! It’s got famous quotes and real mom stories, too. The pregnancy information is as up-to-date as it gets and it’s such a great keepsake. I want to get one for everybody I know who is expecting! I highly recommend it! www.TheWonderWithinYou.com.

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