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Do Babies Really Look More Like Their Dads?

Does this dad look like he needs to be convinced to stick around?

I recently confessed that because both my children look more like their dad, I often feel left out.

I got dozens of comments from people, many saying  the same thing: babies genetically look more like their dads.

Could this really be true?  I’d never heard this before?  How had I never heard this theory before?  Was it just a theory?

My mind was spinning with this new information.

Here are just a few things people said:

Someone once told me that babies look like their fathers when they are born so that their fathers don’t disown them so that they KNOW that they are theirs.

I have heard it too that babies look like their dads for a biological/evolutionary reason so the dads will know it’s their baby and want to take care of it. There can’t be any doubt who the mother is, so it doesn’t matter so much if the baby doesn’t look like her.

A friend of mine has an explanation for this (unscientific, but smart nonetheless). She thinks that it goes back to our primal, caveman roots. Kids need to look like their fathers to facilitate bonding and to basically let the dad know that the kid REALLY does belong to them. Then maybe Dad will be more inclined to stick around to hunt and provide for his kids. We moms will love our kids no matter what they look like, but before the concept of monogamy and wedding bands, the dads needed a little extra reassurance that the kids are really theirs.

A baby needs to look like his/her baby so the father knows the baby is his and not someone else’s and will provide for both the mother & baby.

With this many people referencing the same ambiguous urban legend-sounding anecdote passed from friend or mother, I just had to dig a little deeper and see if I could uncover the real story.  First thing I came to was this New York Times article that says studies suggest that, yes, babies do tend to look more like their fathers.

You can read the article but the gist is this: in 1995, a study put the question to the test by having 122 people try to match pictures of children they didn’t know – at one year, 10 years and 20 years- with photos of their mothers and fathers.

The group members correctly paired about half of the infants with their fathers, but their success rate was much lower matching infants and mothers. And matching the 20 year-olds with either parent proved to be just as hard. The researchers concluded just what so many commenters to my post said. Fathers cannot be sure the baby is theirs but if they spot a resemblance they will know the child belongs to them and be more likely to provide for their baby.  HOWEVER, this journalist, researching the same topic points out a study a few years later: “a research team in Belgium was unable to replicate the 1995 study, finding strangers were in fact no better able to match a photo of an infant with its father than with its mother. And, in fact, it found that the ability of strangers to match a child with either parent was lower than 50%.”

Whether babies look more like their dads is one thing, but another study, published in the journal Evolution and Human Behavior in 2003, seems to show men are drawn to babies who look like them. A group of researchers took head shots of people then morphed them with baby faces. When they showed the people the photos the men were more likely to say they’d adopt the babies who had more of their own facial characteristics. The women showed no preference for children with their features.

Not only does dad like when baby looks like him, but studies show mom is usually the first one to insist baby looks like dad.  This fascinating and thorough blog post summarizes some of the most recent research in this area. The author points out that fathers have a strong vested interest in ensuring a child is theirs. In fact, studies using MRIs have found men even look at their children differently than women: presumably searching for evidence of a familial match.

The author goes on to outline one study of 160 couples with newborns that tried to answer this, by asking 60 couples together and 100 mothers alone which parent the baby resembled.  When asked which parent their infant resembled, mothers with the father present replied 87.5% of the time that the baby looked like the father—but when the father was not in the room the paternal resemblance frequency suddenly dropped to 60.0%! Fathers reported self-resemblance only slightly more than half the time (51.4%). More than 1/3 of the time they gave no response since the mother apparently stepped in to answer first (the mother did not answer in only four cases). The reason for this? Mom’s genetic investment in her infant and her own well being might be at risk if her baby’s paternity is in doubt. One study shows that mere perception of dissimilarity between a man and his offspring can contribute to family violence.

Interesting. But not super scientific. Even if babies do tend to look like dads and men do prefer children with their characteristics, how do you prove the caveman theory that it’s actually genetically this way so men will provide for their children? Isn’t that just speculation about mother nature’s motives on our part?

My best guess – and I’m certainly no expert – is that babies don’t necessarily look like dad, but mom apparently does her best to convince dad that baby does look like him for the same reasons already mentioned.  Also, traditionally, dads are less interested in the kids and perhaps mom thinks that baby looking more like dad will give him the little push he needs to excel at fatherhood?

What do you think?

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