Do mothers really have stronger bonds with their children than fathers do?

April 20, 2016 by Abigail Millings, Angela Rowe And Judi Walsh, The Conversation
Credit: Evgeny Atamanenko/shutterstock

From the marketplace to the workplace, it is mothers who are still perceived as having that "special bond" with their children. This is compounded by advertising and the widely held expectation that it will be mothers who take parental leave.

But in a rapidly changing society, is there really any reason to assume that mothers are any more suited to take care of their children than ? Some will argue that a superior "maternal instinct" is part of a woman's biology. But do pregnancy, hormones or parenting experiences really create a stronger bond? Let's take a look at the scientific evidence.

Some scholars argue that the relationship between parents and children can begin before birth. They claim that such "antenatal bonding" – feeling connected to the unborn baby – is an important predictor of the infant-mother relationship. However, the actual evidence linking feelings about the baby during pregnancy with postnatal behaviour is inconsistent, so it's not clear how – or even if – such feelings influence later relationships.

But even if it is shown to be the case, another problem is that most of the research in this area has been conducted with mothers. We are now also starting to understand that fathers develop antenatal relationships too. It is also clear that not having the experience of pregnancy at all doesn't mean that later relationships are compromised – as those who have adopted a child or started a family through surrogacy arrangements know.

Fathers change too

Oxytocin, commonly heralded as the bonding hormone, is known to be released in large amounts during birth and breastfeeding to help regulate maternal bonding in mammals. However, less well known is that fathers experience rises in oxytocin equal to mothers as a result of interacting with their infants. There are, however, differences between mothers and fathers in the types of interaction that seems to produce these rises in oxytocin. For mothers, it is behaviours such as baby-talk, staring into the baby's eyes and affectionate touch. For fathers, playful touch and behaviour – such as moving their baby around or presenting objects – seem to produce the rise in oxytocin levels.

A huge problem when it comes to understanding the differences – and similarities – between fathers and mothers is that most research on bonding doesn't directly compare the two. This is likely to be because mothers still stay home with the more often than fathers, and researchers might have difficulties finding enough households where fathers are in the role of a primary caregiver. So we don't really know whether fathers interacting with their babies differently to mothers is about their biological differences or about roles taken in relation to breadwinning and child rearing.

But how good are fathers at understanding their child's needs compared to mothers? One study examined the ability of mothers and fathers to identify the cries of their own infant from those of others, and found that this was directly linked to the amount of time the parent spent with the baby – rather than their sex. Other research has found that fathers' seem to be affected by hearing infant cries and that hormone levels influence the way in which they respond to the cries.

We also know that while there are some subtle differences in the way that mothers and fathers show understanding of their infant's thoughts and motivation, the extent to which they do this is predictive of later security in the child's relationship with them.

So although more research is needed, the evidence so far suggests that the argument that biological have a greater bond than other parents is difficult to substantiate. Because factors like antenatal bonding, hormones, experiences, and even our own childhoods all interact together to influence the bonds between a parent and child, it doesn't make a huge amount of sense to try to pin the strength of these relationships on sex differences.

What makes parent-child relationships work is complex, and we don't yet know all the answers, but being alert to the child's experience and understanding and responding to a child's needs in a sensitive manner seems a good place to start.

Explore further: Gender inequalities exist for fathers in the Swedish child health field

Related Stories

Gender inequalities exist for fathers in the Swedish child health field

May 4, 2015
Fathers in Sweden are not provided with the same opportunities as mothers when it comes to learning about how to take care and raise their children.

Child behavior is worse when dads feel unsupported

May 6, 2015
Children are more likely to display troublesome behaviour in families in which the father feels unsupported by his partner.

How new moms assess their partners' ability to parent

August 4, 2015
New mothers take a close look at their personal relationship with their husband or partner when deciding how much they want him involved in parenting, new research finds.

Mum and dad equally good at recognising baby's cry, study finds

April 16, 2013
French researchers on Tuesday dealt a blow to folklore that says mothers are better than fathers in recognising their baby's cry.

Dad's brain becomes more 'maternal' when he's primary caregiver: study

May 26, 2014
Fathers who spend more time taking care of their newborn child undergo changes in brain activity that make them more apt to fret about their baby's safety, a new study shows.

Recommended for you

Young children use physics, not previous rewards, to learn about tools

February 23, 2018
Children as young as seven apply basic laws of physics to problem-solving, rather than learning from what has previously been rewarded, suggests new research from the University of Cambridge.

Study: Tinder loving cheaters—dating app facilitates infidelity

February 23, 2018
The popular dating app Tinder is all about helping people form new relationships. But for many college-aged people, it's also helping those in relationships cheat on their romantic partners.

The 'loudness' of our thoughts affects how we judge external sounds

February 23, 2018
The "loudness" of our thoughts—or how we imagine saying something—influences how we judge the loudness of real, external sounds, a team of researchers from NYU Shanghai and NYU has found.

Looking for the origins of schizophrenia

February 23, 2018
Schizophrenia may be related to neurodevelopmental changes, including brain's inability to generate an appropriate vascular system, according to new study resulted from a partnership between the D"Or Institute for Research ...

Infants are able to learn abstract rules visually

February 22, 2018
Three-month-old babies cannot sit up or roll over, yet they are already capable of learning patterns from simply looking at the world around them, according to a recent Northwestern University study published in PLOS One.

Color of judo uniform has no effect on winning

February 22, 2018
New research on competitive judo data finds a winning bias for the athlete who is first called, regardless of the colour of their uniform. This unique study, published in Frontiers in Psychology, puts to rest the debate on ...

0 comments

Please sign in to add a comment. Registration is free, and takes less than a minute. Read more

Click here to reset your password.
Sign in to get notified via email when new comments are made.