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How much do we let our child’s gender influence our parenting habits and decisions? More than we might realize, according to research. It turns out that fathers have different brain responses when they interact with their toddler daughters than they do when they play with their toddler sons.


A study published in the American Psychological Association’s journal Behavioral Neuroscience found that dads of young girls tend to be more present and responsive to their daughters’ needs than dads of toddler sons. Fathers also sang more often to their girls, talked more openly about their emotions and used more analytical words such as “all,” “below” and “much,” according to the study’s findings.

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Fathers of young boys, on the other hand, took part in more rough-and-tumble play. They also used more achievement-related language such as “proud,” “win” and “top” when talking to their toddler sons.

Researchers from Emory University and the University of Arizona suggest the differences in interactions may be because dads accept girls’ feelings more easily than boys’. “If the child cries out or asks for dad, fathers of daughters responded to that more than did fathers of sons,” says Jennifer Mascaro, the study’s lead researcher.

In addition to recordings of daily interactions, researchers also used functional MRIs to measure the participating fathers’ brains.

What they found is nothing short of fascinating: According to the brain scan results, fathers of young girls showed a more robust response to their daughters’ happy facial expressions in the area of the brain that controls visual processing, reward, emotion regulation and face processing than fathers who have sons.

Fathers of young boys, however, had a greater response to their sons’ neutral facial expressions.

According to Mascaro, girls may learn to be more empathetic than boys if they have fathers who are more attentive to their needs and more open with their emotions. She suggested that fathers of sons could take the same approach when interacting with their boys, as previous research has linked depression to restricted emotion in adults.

“The fact that fathers may actually be less attentive to the emotional needs of boys, perhaps despite their best intentions, is important to recognize,” says Mascaro. In the end, “We should be aware of how unconscious notions of gender can play into the way we treat even very young children,” adds Mascaro.

When I was expecting my first child, I wanted to know everything that could possibly be in store for his first year.

I quizzed my own mom and the friends who ventured into motherhood before I did. I absorbed parenting books and articles like a sponge. I signed up for classes on childbirth, breastfeeding and even baby-led weaning. My philosophy? The more I knew, the better.

Yet, despite my best efforts, I didn't know it all. Not by a long shot. Instead, my firstborn, my husband and I had to figure it out together—day by day, challenge by challenge, triumph by triumph.

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The funny thing is that although I wanted to know it all, the surprises—those moments that were unique to us—were what made that first year so beautiful.

Of course, my research provided a helpful outline as I graduated from never having changed a diaper to conquering the newborn haze, my return to work, the milestones and the challenges. But while I did need much of that tactical knowledge, I also learned the value of following my baby's lead and trusting my gut.

I realized the importance of advice from fellow mamas, too. I vividly remember a conversation with a friend who had her first child shortly before I welcomed mine. My friend, who had already returned to work after maternity leave, encouraged me to be patient when introducing a bottle and to help my son get comfortable with taking that bottle from someone else.

Yes, from a logistical standpoint, that's great advice for any working mama. But I also took an incredibly important point from this conversation: This was less about the act of bottle-feeding itself, and more about what it represented for my peace of mind when I was away from my son.

This fellow mama encouraged me to honor my emotions and give myself permission to do what was best for my family—and that really set the tone for my whole approach to parenting. Because honestly, that was just the first of many big transitions during that first year, and each of them came with their own set of mixed emotions.

I felt proud and also strangely nostalgic as my baby seamlessly graduated to a sippy bottle.

I felt my baby's teething pain along with him and also felt confident that we could get through it with the right tools.

I felt relieved as my baby learned to self-soothe by finding his own pacifier and also sad to realize how quickly he was becoming his own person.



As I look back on everything now, some four years and two more kids later, I can't remember the exact day my son crawled, the project I tackled on my first day back at work, or even what his first word was. (It's written somewhere in a baby book!)

But I do remember how I felt with each milestone: the joy, the overwhelming love, the anxiety, the exhaustion and the sense of wonder. That truly was the greatest gift of the first year… and nothing could have prepared me for all those feelings.

This article was sponsored by Dr. Brown's. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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I was blissfully asleep on the couch while my little one was occupied elsewhere with toys, books and my partner. She got bored with what they were doing, escaped from his watch and, sensing my absence, set about looking for me. Finding me on the couch, nose-level, she peeled back my one available eyelid, singing, "Mama? Mama? ...You there? Wake UP!"

Sound familiar? Nothing limits sleep more than parenthood. And nothing is more sought after as a parent than a nap, if not a good night's rest.

But Mother Nature practically guarantees that you are likely to be woken up by a toddler—they're hardwired to find you (and get your attention) when you're "away."

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