When I run groups for new parents, dads sometimes say that in the newborn days, they don’t quite know where they fit in. Mom and baby have the physical connection of pregnancy, birth, and breastfeeding—some dads (even though they usually qualify it with, “I get it—this is the way it’s supposed to be”) just plain feel left out.
But in a Scientific American article this week, neuroscientist Brian Mossop talks about new research that suggests dads do have a very real biological role in the early days.
Recent animal studies show that fathers may actually grow new neurons in key attachment areas of the brain—regions that are involved in forming memories (the hippocampus), and processing smells (the olfactory cortex), when they’re around directly after the birth of the baby.
The data comes from rat fathers—using the “Degu rat,” a species that follows what the author describes as a very human-like family structure. Dad takes care of basic grooming, hygiene, and chore-related parenting tasks and hunkers down with the family in the days following the birth.
If he’s separated, though, the new brain cells do not form, making dad unable to bond. The babies also suffer—their neurons lose synapses in areas related to emotion and reasoning. The article makes the case that this could explain why children who are dad-less could be more likely to have all sorts of problems later in life: aggression, addiction, and run-ins with the law to name a few.
Do human babies suffer in the same way if dad is not around for the newborn days?My short answer: no. I think the human attachment system is much more intricate and, in a way, flexible. Our babies don’t have the same short “critical period” for bonding. The rats lick and smell each other for a few days to attach. Human babies form bonds to their primary caretakers over months, or maybe even the first year. When we’re distanced by, say, a NICU stay, our attachments to each other form just the same. And if it’s not dad who is around, it’s mom, or two moms, or two dads—human babies attach to their main people. The people they get to know and trust over time.
Nonetheless, babies do change our brains. It’s really neat to think about how my husband’s smell and memory regions might have gradually grown to recognize and carve out a special place for our son. He’s wired differently for life, that’s for sure.