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How Paternity Leave Helps Dads’ Brains Adapt to Parenting

Molly Dickens, PhD | Kate Mangino, PhD

February 19, 2024


According to the authors, a short-term time investment in spending engaged time with their new baby has the potential to pay a lifelong dividend in dad instincts. If we want to see greater gender equality, we need to not just focus on women’s participation in the professional world — we need to encourage more men to participate in the caregiving world.

The benefits of paternity leave are many. Research has shown that taking time off work to care for a newborn child is good for father-baby bonding, the baby’s development, and the parents’ relationship with each other. But there’s one more huge benefit that we’re just now learning about thanks to new data and research: paternal brain training.

What Is Brain Training?

Parenting is not as “instinctual” as previously believed. While decades of research have focused on the maternal brain, revealing fascinating changes that train the brain for the demands of keeping a small human alive, new research on the paternal brain shows similar changes. And these changes happen even though fathers do not have the physical experiences of pregnancy, birth, and the related hormone shifts.

Parental instinct brain training is possible for all parents.

Over the last decade, the research community has done extensive work demonstrating adult neuroplasticity: the brain’s ability to alter its structure and function in response to experiences and environmental changes. The transition into parenthood marks a key window for adult neuroplasticity. Darby Saxbe, professor of psychology at the University of Southern California, studies this particular shift and the importance of early parenting experience on the structural and functional changes related to the “fathering brain.” This research has led Saxbe and fellow researcher Sofia Cárdenas to emphasize that “fathers are made, not born: Time with infants is a key ingredient in building the fathering brain.”

For dads, the brain changes initiated by cues from their babies link to the father-infant connection, suggesting that such neural changes prepare the brain for fatherhood. One key factor in this research is that the most impactful, neurologically expanding experience is engaged experience. “No one is born with this magic ability to fall into the [parent] role easily. But we need to do the work of fully engaging because that is the thing that’s going to drive the neurobiological changes to give them the tools that they need to build over the long term,” explains Chelsea Conaboy, author of Mother Brain: How Neuroscience is Rewriting the Story of Parenthood.

What does engaged experience mean? In this case, it’s quality one-on-one time between a father and his infant. Research has shown that the more hours alone with an infant, the greater the functional neural changes. This enables fathers to become more effective, instinctual caregivers for their children.

One study by Saxbe and colleagues highlights the potential power of paternity leave in shaping the dad brain. The research teams compared brain scans in first-time fathers in California with those of first-time fathers in Spain. Both groups of fathers showed changes. However, comparing the two countries showed interesting differences. One key difference? Only the fathers in Spain showed significant changes in regions associated with sustained attention, which in turn likely prepare the brain for the cognitive and emotional demands of parenting. One potential explanation for this difference comes down to a cultural norm — widespread access to generous paternity leave policies allows Spanish fathers to spend more time with their newborns. It serves as additional evidence that dedicated time during the transition into fatherhood can be viewed as a neural workout to build muscle memory for the challenges ahead; think of it like boot camp for developing your parenting instinct.

In other words, paternity leave equals a free brain-training program.

Like most training programs, the benefits become clear with every effort you put in. The beauty of fatherhood brain training is that it does not require an intensive workout, a stack of books, or long days in a conference room. The only thing you need for this training program is engaged time with your baby. When you engage, your neural network tweaks itself to respond to your baby more quickly. When your brain responds more quickly the next time your baby needs you, you spend more time engaging with your baby. When you spend more time engaging with your baby, your neural network fine-tunes itself a little more — and on and on.

Spending engaged time with your new baby is a rare opportunity for long-term success in fatherhood. This short-term time investment has the potential to pay a lifelong dividend in dad instincts.

Expect a Learning Curve

With any training program, the first few days are fun — there’s excitement that comes with new hobbies or projects. But then the real work sets in, and to get better, you have to stick with it. Improvement requires dedication, tenacity, commitment, and time. You have to plug through the hard days and can’t give up when things get rough. Otherwise, you’ll never meet your goal.

Brain training with an infant is no different. Everyone who has spent time with a baby knows how hard it can be: the sleep deprivation, the crying, the uncertainty, the monotony. But like other training programs, you need to persevere, and give your brain the stimulation it needs to grow and adapt, preparing you for a lifetime of parenthood.

Erez Levin, father of two, adtech specialist at Google, and paternity leave “dadvocate,” agrees. Levin took advantage of his employer’s parental leave entitlement when his children were born, and does not think the question should be if you take parental leave, but how you take parental leave. “When my daughter was four months old, my wife returned to work, and that’s when I began my full 12 weeks of paternity leave. I learned that bonding happens during the challenging moments, and I had plenty of those, especially in the first few weeks of my solo leave,” he told us. “I benefitted in more ways than I could list, but overall I am confident that taking my leave got me comfortable being an independent caretaker across all tasks.”

Just like any training program, the real growth — the real confidence, the real victory — of fatherhood brain training comes with the hard work. But like other accomplishments, once you achieve success and look back, all those hard days and nights were worth it.

Where Do We Go from Here?

For dads with access to parental leave.

There are very real social norms that push men into the income-earning role and dissuade them from taking their leave. Find a way to work around this, push back, and fight for your leave.

Although scheduling some overlap time with your partner is nice for building a family bond, it’s important to use part of your leave to spend time with your baby alone — it’s the best opportunity for brain training. When you’re the only adult at home, you tackle the challenges, so you learn how to solve those daily baby problems.

For dads without access to parental leave.

Not many employers in the U.S. provide paid paternity leave. If you don’t have access to paid leave and cannot afford unpaid leave, you can still train your brain by finding baby-engagement time outside of work. To maximize brain training, one-on-one time needs to be a priority during your baby’s infancy, so make the time to be alone with your baby. Will you be exhausted? Absolutely. Is it going to be worth it? 100%.

Of course, if your partner is breastfeeding, the role of feeding the baby may be covered. But there are still plenty of other baby-focused roles you can take on: diaper duty, gas-bubble eradicator, tummy-time instructor, master soother, nap captain, expert swaddler, lullaby singer, scrubber and bather — or just strap on a baby carrier and head out for a walk. You don’t have to read your infant Proust; you don’t have to strive for perfection. You just have to spend time with them.

For employers, managers, and leaders.

As decision-makers, you have the power to push for policies that allow all new parents to take parental leave — and the power to initiate the cultural shift necessary to encourage men to take advantage of parental leave entitlements. Take parental leave yourself, tell others about your brain training, and set an example for other new dads to do the same. If parental leave wasn’t an option for you when you had kids, join the voices of other men who regret their lack of leave by advocating for better policies for today’s new dads.

For grandfathers, uncles, friends, neighbors, colleagues, employers, and everyone else.

Fight for parental leave for all parents. Gender norms are so entrenched in our culture that we have come to mistake them as biology. But science tells us that females do not have any more parenting instinct than people of other genders. In reality, the “biology” of the “parenting instinct” is far more expansive — it’s an innate skill that also requires exposure, experience, and practice.

And lastly, support the new dads in your life. It’s hard for men to assert their desire to spend dedicated time at home with their infant. Men who do push back against social norms will need support. You can be supportive in the simplest ways: forward this article, talk about their amazing brain-training opportunity, tell them you believe in them. A few words of encouragement might mean more than you’ll ever know.

. . .

The more men have access to parental leave and take it, the more dads we’ll have in the world with brains trained for parenting. If we want to see greater gender equality, we need to not just focus on women’s participation in the professional world — we need to encourage more men to participate in the caregiving world.

Copyright 2023 Harvard Business School Publishing Corporation. Distributed by The New York Times Syndicate.

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Molly Dickens, PhD

Molly Dickens, PhD, is a stress physiologist with ongoing work focusing on the intersection of stress, health, and the critical expansion of structures, systems, and cultural narratives to better support the health and well-being of working caregivers. Her experience spans from academic research to women’s health technology, and she currently serves as a maternal health startup advisor and a visiting researcher at UC Davis. In addition, she cofounded and served as founding executive director for the gender equity nonprofit, &Mother.

Kate Mangino, PhD

Kate Mangino, PhD, is a gender expert and professional facilitator who helps international organizations design and implement inclusive programming. She is the author of Equal Partners: Improving Gender Equality at Home, which offers practical advice about what each of us can do to address harmful gender norms in our personal lives.

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