Mindpath Health’s Zishan Khan, MD, discusses what ‘dad brain’ is and why first time fathers experience it.
Robin Young has autism spectrum disorder, which, in his case, means he struggles to empathize and show love for someone else. The resident of Bodicote, England, is also a father.
“This is something I’ve always had. However, when I became a dad, I found that the love for my children was different,” Young told Healthline. “Not only was this strong feeling of love new, but it also enabled me to empathize better because I finally understood what others feel when they say they love someone.”
Young – the chief executive officer of workout supply company Fitness Savvy – said he believes his outlook on life improved after having children and planning for their future.
“People think that it is just your priorities that change when you become a parent, but it would make perfect sense that the brain goes through changes as well,” Young said
He’s likely correct, according to researchers from the University of Southern California (USC).
They say women aren’t the only ones who go through physical change when becoming parents. Men’s brains undergo measurable changes after their babies arrive.
That’s right. They get “dad brain.”
Their study published in the journal Cerebral Cortex reports that some of those changes involve slight brain shrinkage. They add that brain changes in new fathers mostly affect areas linked to empathy and visual processing.
The scientists believe those changes contribute to neuroplasticity, which is the brain’s ability to create and form new synaptic connections to adapt to new experiences.
“Becoming a parent entails changes to your lifestyle and your biology,” said Darby Saxbe, the study’s senior author and a professor of psychology at USC’s Dornsife College of Letters, Arts, and Sciences, in a statement. “And it requires new skills like being able to empathize with a nonverbal infant, so it makes sense but has not been proven that the brain would be particularly plastic during the transition to parenthood as well.”
Details from the study
The study examined the brain scans of 40 expectant fathers — 20 in the United States and 20 in Spain. Researchers also looked at a group of 17 childless fathers who were scanned in Spain.
The researchers identified that the most significant changes in the expectant fathers occurred in the cortex — the brain’s outer layer managing attention, planning, and executive functioning.
Comparisons made before and after the babies were born showed changes where the brain processes visual information and areas that are part of the brain’s default mode network
The childless men had no such changes.
“This is such an important and neglected topic,” Dr. Zishan Khan, a child, adolescent, and adult psychiatrist with Texas-based Mindpath Health, told Healthline.
“This can be a very difficult transition for mothers and fathers, but fathers especially since they don’t get the chance to carry the child during the course of pregnancy and it can sometimes take more time to truly feel connected,” Khan explained. “The psychological adjustment often involves having to manage the difficult sensory responses that occur when a child is crying, seemingly in pain or distress, or feeling ill.”
Khan said there’s a big shift in mindset for first-time parents.
“Priorities must be shifted and you may not be able to find time to relax the same way you did after a long day at work or have the ability to go out with friends late into the night,” Khan said. “The lack of sleep can also further complicate this adjustment and fathers often experience irritability, impatience, and extreme exhaustion as a result.”
Lauren Cook-McKay, a licensed marriage and family therapist as well as vice president of marketing for Connecticut-based Divorce Answers, told Healthline men go through their own hormone changes when they become fathers.
“The man’s cortisol and testosterone levels generally dip within the first few weeks of being a father,” Cook-McKay said. “This somehow makes fathers less aggressive, bringing them close to their children. New fathers also experience an increase in prolactin, oxytocin, and estradiol, which causes a man to exhibit nurturing behaviors.”
How the change happens
The “dad brain” doesn’t just happen overnight.
“Parental psychological adjustment determines parental involvement,” Cook-McKay said. “Parents who have poor parental psychological adjustments tend to be less involved with their children. Engaging with an infant can help produce positive effects in terms of responsiveness and attentiveness.”
Dr. Hayley Nelson is a neuroscientist, psychology professor, and founder of The Academy of Cognitive and Behavioral Neuroscience.
She told Healthline becoming a parent is a significant time for the brain, as it learns from new experiences.
“Your life changes in the blink of an eye and you are now in charge of communicating with a non-verbal, seemingly helpless child,” Nelson said. “It’s a perfect time for increased empathy, too.”
Nelson said there’s more research to be done on the brain effects of things such as fear, learning, and reward when becoming a father, which she said all affect mothers.
“Future studies investigating brain changes in fatherhood considering hormonal changes, as well as effects from sleep deprivation and stress, could help further elucidate what is occurring in the brain after childbirth,” Nelson said. “Not only in the biological mother but also from the father or other caregivers, biological or not.”
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