Are You a Good Father? It May Affect Your Testosterone

Men, did you know being a good father can lower your testosterone levels?

What a bummer.  Just as we get to enjoy our partners pitching in to help with the kids, now they have a reason to stop.

All kidding aside, however, a new University of Michigan study found that when men saw their infants in distress, it lowered their testosterone.

Yes, when men are nurturing and caring for their children, their "maleness" declines.  While that might not make fathers very happy, I suspect it has to do with the law of the jungle, with male beasts preferring to shelter and protect their young rather than get bloody and torn up in fights with the others in the clan.  (Of course, this doesn't account for the fathers who eat their young.  But that's a story for another day.)

But now it looks like men may be decompensated for being a good father.

A crying infant can trigger certain emotions that may be accompanied by a corresponding hormonal response: empathy with decreased testosterone or aggravation with increased testosterone.

 Previous research about fathers and testosterone has only looked at the play interactions between parent and child, which rarely elicits significant changes in testosterone, according to 

"A better trigger assessment is their own baby crying," says Patty Kuo, the study's first author and U-M psychology doctoral student. "For parents, infant cries are strong stimuli and can often elicit multiple types of emotional responses, including empathy, annoyance or aggravation."

Now who hasn't been there for any of these feelings?  I can remember the first time I heard my baby cry after I brought him home from the hospital.  I cried, too.  How was I going to take care of this needy litle life?  I cried for all I didn't know about it.

Then came the time when I wanted to lock my kid in the house and go for a long drive because he wouldn't  stop crying.  Hmm.  Maybe women's testosterone levels rise when they hear a baby cry.

The data involved 175 men whose spouse/partner was pregnant with their second child. Hormone tests (saliva samples) were collected during a laboratory visit to assess the father-infant interaction.

The father-infant groups participated in a videotaped activity in which the child was separated from the father for a short period and then later reunited. Infants often became visibly upset during the procedure, searching for the father during separations and seeking comfort from him upon the reunions.

Kuo believes that when watching their distressed infant, fathers' empathy for their infants and the declining testosterone level shape how they respond. For example, if fathers interpret infant crying as a means of communicating distress and, therefore, empathize with the infant, some men will experience a decline in testosterone. This, in turn, facilitates a nurturing response, the researchers said.

Alternatively, when fathers interpret their infant's crying as aggravating and feel they are unable to comfort the infant, they may experience increases in testosterone, which facilitates an intrusive or negative response to the infant.

Researchers had fathers and their infants participate in several different activities. "We then observed whether the men were sensitive or intrusive with their infants during these interactions" Kuo says. "Men with larger declines in testosterone during the separation task were more sensitive fathers during the interaction."

Only during the separation from the infants did men's testosterone levels change, not in the interaction task, most likely because the men comforted and soothed their infants during the reunions, researchers say. 

So, should you stop being a good dad?  The good news is that levels go back to normal

"We are not arguing that universal declines in testosterone will always be associated with 'good fathering,'" says co-author Brenda Volling, lead investigator of the study, professor of psychology and director of the Center for Human Growth and Development. "Perhaps increases in men's testosterone may be necessary to protect the infant from harm in some situations. We are just beginning to understand the complex relations between men's hormones and fathering." 


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