The birth of a child leaves its mark on the brain. Most investigations of these changes have focused on mothers, but scientists have recently begun looking more closely at fathers. Neural circuits that support parental behaviors appear more robust in moms a few weeks after the baby is born, whereas in dads the growth can take several months.
A study in Social Neuroscience analyzed 16 dads several weeks after their baby's birth and again a few months later. At each check, the researchers administered a multiple-choice test to check for signs of depression and used MRI to image the brain. Compared with the earlier scans, MRI at three to four months postpartum showed growth in the hypothalamus, amygdala and other regions that regulate emotion, motivation and decision making. Furthermore, dads with more growth in these brain areas were less likely to show depressive symptoms, says first author Pilyoung Kim, who directs the Family and Child Neuroscience Lab at the University of Denver.
Although some physiological brain changes are similar in new moms and dads, other changes seem different and could relate to the roles of each parent, says senior author James Swain, a psychiatrist at the University of Michigan (brain diagrams below).
A 2014 behavioral study of expectant fathers showed that midpregnancy ultrasound imaging was a “magic moment” in the dads' emerging connection with their baby. Yet the emotional bond was different than it is in expectant moms. Instead of thinking about cuddling or feeding the baby, dads-to-be focused on the future: they imagined saving money for a college fund or walking down the aisle at their daughter's wedding.
“It was interesting how little dads' images centered on an infant,” says psychologist Tova Walsh of the University of Wisconsin–Madison, who led the study. “I didn't hear dads talk about putting the baby down for a nap or changing diapers.”