How dads & mums bond differently with baby

Dads may parent and bond differently to mums but their interactions during the first 1,000 days are just as crucial in building their littles one’s cognitive, emotional and social development!

How dads & mums bond differently with baby

The first 1,000 days 

The moments between your baby's conception and their second birthday marks a unique window where we can help give them the best start in life. 

Those first 1,000 days are when your baby’s brain, body, and immune system are growing and developing at the speed of lightning. This period of time is where the foundations for their health and neurodevelopment in life start to take influence. In order for your little one to flourish, they will need: healthy food; safety and security; a nurturing environment, loving relationships, and time to play.

How dads are wired for parenting

Until recently, psychologists working in the field of child development believed that mums were instinctive parents - i.e. biologically programmed to be the primary caregivers - while believing that dads had to deliberately learn parenting behaviours. At face value, this was a reasonable assumption as babies are entirely reliant on mum while in the womb and because mum tends to be baby’s focus during the first few months of their life while they provide constant comfort, security, and the nourishment needed to survive. 

However, new research has begun to reshape these once deeply held beliefs. We now know that new dads show significant changes in their hormonal levels during pregnancy and the first few months of baby’s life which helps them to support their transition into parenthood [1].

Recent studies have also shown that dads' brain size increases in areas associated with affectionate care, threat detection, problem solving and planning during this time. In other words, both mums and dads alike are biologically programmed to parent and change physiologically in unique but complimentary ways. As a parenting team, these differing transitions help meet the significant needs of a newborn, share the burden of care, and allows for good foundations to develop.

Why do mums and dads parent differently?

Research using fMRI brain scans has allowed us to understand what exactly is happening in the brains of mums and dads while they parent. The research revealed that both parents share similar responses when it comes to empathy which shows that there has been a shared biological change allowing them both to suitably understand and respond to their child's needs. However, there were some interesting and important differences too.

When mums look at their baby, a part of their brain called the 'amygdala' lights up and becomes more active. This area of the brain is involved in behavioural responses such as affection, nurture, and risk detection. Meanwhile for dads looking at their baby, a part of the brain called the 'neocortex' lights up which is involved in higher-order function such as: language, motor control, and rational thought [2].

The difference in how these parts of the brain light up help to highlight how mums and dads parent differently. Mums are more likely to respond to and bond with their child through affectionate care and intimate nurturing. Dads, on the other hand, are more likely to respond to and bond with their child through skill-building and physical play. By doing so, dads are helping to develop their child's resilience which helps build up to moments like those first tentative steps! 

The importance of early bonding

During the first 1,000 days babies can create 1,000 new neural connections every second. It is during this time where 80% of our child's brain development takes place. But these connections need structure and consistency which highlights the importance of all parents and caregivers developing strong nurturing bonds with your little one early on.

Every interactions you have with your baby helps to strengthen and reinforce certain neural connections while simultaneously reducing and refining others. In other words, your relationship with your baby directly shapes the wiring of their brain. These interactions lay the groundwork for your little ones to think, understand, communicate, show emotions, and behave appropriately. 

How can dads start bonding with their child?

Mums tend to have a head start when it comes to bonding with their baby. Meanwhile, creating that father-child bond may take a few months to truly develop as newborns primarily look to mum for comfort and nourishment - but that doesn't mean dads are left out!

What's important for fathers to remember is that consistency is key when it comes to spending time with their child. Even in those moment when you don't think you're getting much interaction or feedback, you are always strengthening your child's neural connections. And, while sometimes difficult to work out, you're little one is trying to communicate with you from the moment they're born [3].

The more time you're able to spend with your little one, the more you're helping your baby's brain to develop and as a result this will help create a stronger father-child bond. Furthermore, new research has shown that the more time fathers spend alone with their little one, the more effective and instinctual they become as a caregiver [4].

This highlights that there is a connection between the time you invest in your child and the impactful results you will see in your own growth as a father, in your child's development, and in your overall bond together.

Time to play!

When you're interacting one-to-one with your baby, try to avoid the distractions of the modern world – i.e. the phone or TV – and really tune in to your baby and what they need. Spend time touching, dancing, talking, singing and peek-a-boo. By around 6-months your baby will begin to smile, laugh and babble along with you, and a true relationship starts to develop. 

Remember, dads excel at bonding with their little one through physical play, and play is serious business! Rough and tumble play in particular is critical in building social relationships, reciprocity, resilience and trust that help children get ready for life beyond the family. Growing up, children particularly prefer rough and tumble play like tickling, chasing and play-fighting with dad. That's because this form of play rewards both dads and their children with a flood of bonding neurochemicals.

However you spend time with your wee one, whether through skin-to-skin contact, reading, tickling, singing or just hanging out together - you’re moulding how your baby sees the world and equipping them with the tools to understand and interact within it. You’re setting them up for life.

Reminder: While babies and toddlers enjoy exciting movement, it’s important to be gentle with young children, to avoid any accidental injury. Babies over 8 months who can hold their head back and neck straight when sitting might like to be gently bounced or lifted into the air, as long as they feel safe.

Watch: The Myth Busting Power of Dad Science

In her excellent book, ‘The Life of Dad’, Dr. Anna Machin explores in greater detail the changes that happen in men as they become dads and what drives the powerful bond between father and child.

⬇️ She joined us to talk about the science of dads and bust some popular myths!