Caring Dads

Caring Dads
The Social Neuroscience of Attachment & Caregiving in Fathers

Dads are nowadays more involved in childcare activities than ever before. Since the 1950’s, the waking time dads spend with their kids has nearly quadrupled (certainly in many western countries including the UK – see here). This important change in dads’ daily routine clearly reflects their wish to play a strong and active role in their children’s lives.

A similar – but strongly accelerated – development was observed by the UK Fatherhood Institute during the first COVID-19 lockdown across Great Britain in 2020, which saw many dads returning home and every day spending twice as much time with their children than usual. Very interestingly, a majority of dads reported afterwards that spending more time with their kids transformed not only the father-child relationship but also family functioning overall in many positive ways (see Lockdown Fathers Study).

The above societal changes are mirrored by changes within attachment theory – nicely summarised by Inge Bretherton in 2010. While fathers were not even mentioned in John Bowlby’s initial writings, dads’ importance as caregivers and attachment figures for their children as well as their selective contribution to many child developmental outcomes and family functioning are nowadays strongly appreciated.

Despite such extensive changes in society and attachment theory regarding dads role in childcare, social neuroscience research on fathers and the father-child relationship remains scarce. When looking at all available scientific papers on parenting from a social neuroscience perspective between 1960 and summer 2022, papers in mothers are vastly outnumbering papers in fathers by more than five times. This persisting and strong bias towards mothers and the mother-child relationship in social neuroscience is stunning, because the data that is available on dads and the father-child relationship speaks a very clear language.

Dads (like mums) are biologically wired to be parents. Like for mums, dads’ body and brain undergo important and persistent changes during the transition to parenthood. For a very nice recent summary of social neuroscience research on dads, a strongly recommend reading is the excellent review article by Abraham & Feldman (2022) with the title “The Neural Basis of Human Fatherhood: A Unique Biocultural Perspective on Plasticity of Brain and Behavior” (see here).

Crucially, however, accumulating social neuroscience evidence also suggests that dads (and mums) are made, not born (see also this very nice Opinion Guest Essay by Darby Saxbe and Sofia Cardenas in The New York Times). Although the neurobiological wiring is naturally in place, it needs to be actively used, refined and strengthened. For dads, the amount of neurobiological changes that happen during their transition to fatherhood crucially depend on at least three factors: 1) the amount of time they spend with their kids, 2) the quality of the time they spend with their kids, and 3) the confidence in and reward experienced from their new role as a parent.

It therefore is absolutely vital to give dads as much time and space as possible to bond with their kids, to make this bonding time as rewarding and positive for dads as possible, and to boost dads’ confidence by changing societal patterns and political decisions in dads’ favour.

In two of our own investigations as part of the CARE Studies conducted within the SoNeAt Lab, we recently looked at dads’ brain structure – and particularly hypothalamus volume – as well as father-child interpersonal neural synchrony – how dads’ and kids’ brains get “in sync” with one another during cooperative puzzle play. Crucially, in both investigations, we linked these social neuroscience measures with dads’ caregiving beliefs – how much importance dads attributed to their role as a parent, how much time dads spent with their children, and how rewarded dads felt when interacting with their children.

In the first investigation, we observed that hypothalamus volume was larger in those dads with stronger caregiving beliefs. In the second investigation, we found that interpersonal neural synchrony during cooperative puzzle play was stronger in those father-child dyads in which dads reported stronger caregiving beliefs. These findings are very interesting, because 1) the hypothalamus is importantly involved in coordinating attachment and caregiving behaviour (i.e., as primary site of oxytocin synthesis), and 2) interpersonal neural synchrony constitutes a fundamental mechanism for social interaction, learning and therefore the parent-child relationship and child social, emotional and cognitive (brain) development. These findings are further explained in a blog post written by Dr Vrticka in October 2021 (see also Resources & Topics below).

Please be aware that the results of the two investigations described above emerged from correlations performed in a cross-sectional design – i.e., studies with one measurement time point only. It therefore is not possible to attribute any cause and effect at this time. More research with a longitudinal design – i.e., studies repeatedly measuring the same participants over time – is needed. Nonetheless, as associations with dads’ caregiving beliefs emerged with two independent measures of fathers’ brain structure and father-child interpersonal neural synchrony, we are confident that these associations are meaningful and robust. And we are looking forward to replicating and further extending these findings in the future.

If the above lines sparked your interest in the most recent social neuroscience research specifically targeting fathers and how this all links to attachment theory, then please feel free to explore the resources and topics outlined below.

You can also use the contact form to get in touch with Dr Pascal Vrticka to further discuss his research on the social neuroscience of attachment in dads and its wider implications for society.

Resources & Topics – more to come soon…!

Please click the icon for more information.

TEDx Talk 2022 – Caring Dads

Dr Vrticka’s University of Essex TEDx 2022 Talk “Caring dads: The making of involved and confident fathers

BabyGro Book for Parents

Free book for parents – including dads – based on Dr Vrticka’s functional neuro-anatomical model of human attachment (NAMA)

Blog Post 1

Blog post “Men as Fathers and Caregivers: Insights from Two New Social Neuroscience Studies” written by Dr Vrticka in October 2021

Talk Recording 1

Postgraduate Virtual Week (University of Essex) virtual presentation by Dr Vrticka in May 2021.

Talk Recording 2

SoWhat? Knowledge Exchange Seminar on “Attachment and Dads” for Cattanach (an endowed charity in Scotland focusing on strengthening attachment, building resilience, and supporting prevention) presented by Dr Vrticka (February 22, 2022).

Contact Form

Please use the contact form below to get in touch with Dr Vrticka if you have any questions about the Social Neuroscience of Human Attachment in Dads.