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It's science: What happens to a guy's brain when he becomes a dad

New moms aren't the only ones experiencing hormone changes.

It's science: What happens to a guy's brain when he becomes a dad

There's a saying that a woman becomes a mother when she sees that positive pregnancy test, but a man becomes a father in the delivery room.

For men, the moment when you first come face to face with your child isn't just a life-altering emotional experience, but also a physiological one—thanks to dropping testosterone levels and rising prolactin and oxytocin levels.

Although this may make new dads feel like their hormones are all over the place, it's for a purpose, says anthropologist Lee Gettler, a researcher with the University of Notre Dame's Center for Children and Families. "Based on a number of lines of evidence, these hormonal changes in fathers seem to reflect that evolution has shaped men's biology to help them respond to the demands of parenthood," said Gettler in a 2014 talk. "Our research facilitates men's understanding of their own 'built-in' biological parenting capabilities, which is highly applicable to the day-to-day lives of millions of men."

Testosterone drops

According to a 2011 longitudinal study from Gettler's team, new fathers' testosterone levels fall by about 40% in the first month of parenthood, which seemed to be linked to their paternal sensitivity and attachment.

"Our findings suggest that human males have an evolved neuroendocrine architecture that is responsive to committed parenting, supporting a role of men as direct caregivers during hominin evolution," the researchers said in their discussion, explaining fathers with higher levels of testosterone were less responsive to infant cries and reported feeling less sympathy.

Prolactin rises

While testosterone levels drop, studies show the estrogen levels of expectant fathers begins to rise in the weeks before the baby's due date and continues to stay elevated for months afterward. Along with that, new dads experience an average 20% rise in their prolactin levels in the first month.

While this hormone is commonly associated with promoting lactation among mothers, researchers believe the purpose for dads is promoting the development of paternal behaviors. As authors of a 2016 study published in the Journal of Postgraduate Medicine said, "The prolactin level was found to be correlated with father-infant interaction in a social context, and fathers with higher prolactin profiles were found to be more responsive to baby cues."

The 'love hormone' goes into overdrive

Among new moms, oxytocin goes into action to facilitate birth and breastfeeding. But among new dads, the triggers have more to do with "stimulatory play," such as when they pull the baby up to sit or are able to get them to giggle. This, again, plays a "significant role in establishing a sense of fatherhood during the infant's first growth stages," says Ruth Feldman, adjunct professor at the Child Study Center at Yale University School of Medicine and author of several studies on the topic.

Feldman's research found that mothers tend to experience oxytocin boosts from moments of loving physical contact while fathers got a surge in their "love hormone" more from play. That means there are more and more opportunities for oxytocin hits as babies grow.

And as the parental relationship deepens, fathers' oxytocin sensitivity rises: According to a study published in the journal Hormones and Behavior last year, dads of toddlers experience spikes to their oxytocin levels simply by looking at pictures of their kids.

In other words: Fatherhood forever changes men's hormones—in the very best of ways.

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This is how we’re defining success this school year

Hint: It's not related to grades.

In the ever-moving lives of parents and children, opportunities to slow down and reflect on priorities can be hard to come by. But a new school year scheduled to begin in the midst of a global pandemic offers the chance to reflect on how we should all think about measures of success. For both parents and kids, that may mean putting a fresh emphasis on optimism, creativity and curiosity.

Throughout recent decades, "school success" became entangled with "academic achievement," with cases of anxiety among school children dramatically increasing in the past few generations. Then, almost overnight, the American school system was turned on its head in the spring of 2020. As we look ahead to a new school year that will look like no year past, more is being asked of teachers, students and parents, such as acclimating to distance learning, collaborating with peers from afar and aiming to maintain consistency with schooling amidst general instability due to COVID.

Despite the inherent challenges, there is also an overdue opportunity to redefine success during the school year by finding fresh ways to keep students and their parents involved in the learning process.

"I always encourage my son to try at least one difficult thing every school year," says Arushi Garg, parenting blogger and mom of a 4-year-old. "This challenges him but also allows me to remind him to be optimistic! Lots of things in life are hard, and it's important we learn to be positive during difficult times. Fostering a sense of optimism allows kids to push beyond what they thought possible, like biking without training wheels or reading above their grade level."

Here are a few mantras to keep in mind this school year:

Quality learning matters more than quantifying learning

After focusing on standardized measures of academic success for so long, the learning environment this next school year may involve more independent, remote learning. Some parents are considering this an exciting opportunity for their children to assume a bigger role in what they are learning—and parents are also getting on board by supporting their children's education with engaging, positive learning materials like Highlights Magazine.

As a working mom, Garg also appreciates that Highlights Magazine can help engage her son while she's also working. She says, "He sits next to me and solves puzzles in the magazine or practices his writing from the workbook."

Keep an open mind as "school" looks different

Whether children are of preschool age or in the midst of high school, "going to school" is bound to look different this year. Naturally, this may require some adjustment as kids become accustomed to new guidelines. Although many parents may wish to shelter our kids from challenges, others believe optimism can be fostered through adversity when everyone is committed to adapting to new experiences.

"Honestly, I am yet to figure out when I will be comfortable sending [my son] back [to school]," says Garg. In the meantime, she's helping her son remain connected with friends who also read Highlights Magazine by encouraging the kids to talk about what they are learning on video calls.

Follow children's cues about what interests them

For Garg, her biggest hope for this school year is that her son will create "success" for himself by embracing new learning possibilities with positivity.

"Encouraging my son to try new things has given him a chance to prove that he can do anything," she says. "He takes his previous success as an example now and feels he can fail multiple times before he succeeds."

There's no denying that this school year will be far from the norm. But, perhaps, we can create a new, better way of defining our children's success in school because of it.

This article was sponsored by Highlights. Thank you for supporting the brands that support Motherly and mamas.

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