The “love hormone” oxytocin may program fathers to bond with their young children, a new study suggests.
“Our findings add to the evidence that fathers, and not just mothers, undergo hormonal changes that are likely to facilitate increased empathy and motivation to care for their children,” said study lead author James Rilling of Emory University in Atlanta.
Oxytocin is a naturally occurring hormone. MRI brain scans revealed that dads who received boosts of the hormone through a nasal spray had increased activity in brain areas associated with reward and empathy when looking at pictures of their toddlers, Rilling’s team said.
The findings also “suggest that oxytocin, known to play a role in social bonding, might someday be used to normalize deficits in paternal motivation, such as in men suffering from post-partum depression,” Rilling said in a university news release.
Rilling is an anthropologist and director of the Laboratory for Darwinian Neuroscience.
There’s growing evidence that fathers’ involvement with their children reduces a child’s risk of illness and death. It also helps children’s social, mental and educational development, the researchers said in background notes.
However, not all fathers take a “hands-on” approach to caring for their children, Rilling said.
“I’m interested in understanding why some fathers are more involved in caregiving than others,” he said. “In order to fully understand variation in caregiving behavior, we need a clear picture of the neurobiology and neural mechanisms that support the behavior.”
The study was published online Feb. 17 in the journal Hormones and Behavior.
The American Academy of Pediatrics has more on parenting.