How does your brain change when you’re a dad?

If you’re still under the gendered impression only gestational mothers see hormonal changes taking place inside their head, think again.

dad brain change


We’ve talked before on Working Dads about how your brain changes when you become a father. It’s a strange thing to experience – especially since it’s a phenomenon that has become very gendered. Women carry the baby and as such their brain and body chemistry naturally transforms. Dads watch on and while we (hopefully) engage with parenthood, it’s not happening on a physiological level, at least that’s not the perceived wisdom.

Well, it’s something I’ve thought a lot about and reading Mother Brain by Chelsea Conaboy (which I’ve mentioned on here as well), it’s great to know that our brains do change, if not in exactly the same way as mothers, then with quite a lot of similarities.

Conaboy writes that maternal behaviour is actually “a basic human characteristic, not uniquely maternal at all”. In fact, fathers who participate in their child’s care find their brains changing in ways that are very similar to gestational mothers. “Those changes,” says Conaboy, “are clearest in brain regions related to how fathers process their own emotions and read and respond to others’ cues.”

Of course, engaged dads feel a deep love for their child. But this is not just an emotional response to typically male traits, the need to protect and propagate their species. In fact, researchers at Israel’s Bar-Ilan University discovered that fathers who are primary caregivers saw a similar activation in their amygdala to gestational mothers. In other words, writes Conaboy, “there is more than one path to a responsive parental brain”.

It should be noted that the vast majority of research on this stuff is on cisgender, biological, heterosexual dads, so there is a lot more to explore. But it’s clear that while there are obviously huge hormonal changes in mums-to-be, there are also big shifts in dads as well, preparing them to be fathers.

Conaboy points to a 2000 study that showed mothers’ levels of testosterone increased during the latter stages of pregnancy, while dads’ got lower. This, as she says, “seem, to me, to affirm two things seen throughout the literature on fathers: men’s neural responses are changed by fatherhood, especially around motivation and empathy. And we still don’t have a great handle on how hormones shape behaviour, in humans generally or in parenthood specifically.”

It’s also clear how important a dad’s input in the early stages of childhood is in changing their child’s brain chemistry in most facets of their life.

So if you feel when your brain has re-ordered itself – and is continuing to do so when going about the business of being a dad – then don’t fear. It’s probably just hormonal. Enjoy it.

dad brain change

Read more:

How Ageas supports working dads

New episode of WM People podcast arrives

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