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Testosterone: It's There for Dads When They Need It

Testosterone: It's There for Dads When They Need It

Some infant cues, such as baby cries, actually increase testosterone.

father-and-son

I have two kids. One is 3½ and generally sleeps through the night. The other is 14 months old and either fancies himself as living on a farm or simply likes to jack with his parents by waking up most mornings between 4 and 5 a.m. He may or may not go back to sleep after a trip to the milk bar, typically depending on how late we went to sleep the evening prior (it’s uncanny). Most nights, I admittedly sleep through the first of his wake-ups, and, in fact, often have no conscious recollection of ever hearing him squawk for us from the adjacent room. But, when my wife is out of town or taking in a way-too-early spin class, I find myself jumping out of bed with the urgency of a testosterone-fueled (albeit very tired) man-protector, ready to address whatever it is that has awoken young Mowgli.

A recent study by Dr. Sari van Anders and colleagues, out of the University of Michigan, sheds light on the hormonal influences behind my different reactions. They wanted to get at the bottom of some contradictory findings in the fatherhood-hormone literature. Specifically, it is generally accepted that men’s testosterone levels decrease when they become parents. This should be no surprise. After all, the effects testosterone has on the body and behavior make more sense when men confront competitive or challenging situations; you don’t need a surge of muscle strength to change a diaper (although I do realize that some would quibble with that statement). In fact, more nurturant and soothing behaviors are actually harder to engage in when experiencing a surge of testosterone. But, here’s the rub: some infant cues, such as baby cries, actually increase testosterone. Until now, it wasn’t quite clear why this was the case, given that nothing speaks to the need for a ‘nurturant and soothing’ dad more than a crying baby. But, importantly, not all interactions with babies require the same approach. Sometimes babies need comforting. Other times they need you to fend off the sabre tooth tiger that is looking for lunch (at least in prehistoric times). Clearly, testosterone is not so necessary for one of these contexts (singing “Hush Little Baby”), but would be quite handy in the other (back off, tiger). Thus, it is possible that testosterone levels fluctuate with the specific parenting demands men face at a given moment.

To test this idea, they took 55 young men and had them listen to a baby cry, but either (a) did not let them do anything about it (they just had to sit there and listen), (b) gave them an opportunity to effectively soothe the baby, or (c) gave them an opportunity to soothe the baby, but stacked the deck against these guys such that the baby couldn’t be soothed. (That’s just plain wrong.) How did they manipulate the baby’s behavior? They used a very realistic doll that is often used in parenting classes, the RealCare Baby II-Plus.

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Tuesday, 27 October 2020

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