It is common for a father to experience difficulties in figuring out what their infant needs and how to interact with them.  For some, this leads to the feeling that their efforts are futile in meeting their child’s needs, such as when he or she cries.  A father begins to think, that as a man, he is unable to do all the things that a woman can do for the child.  This also often causes him to question his ability to achieve the closeness he wants with his child.  Fathers then will begin to seek out ways to contribute such as providing financial support, food, and other basic support.

However, it has been demonstrated fathers are just as good as mothers at recognizing the cries of their baby (Gustafsson, Levréro, Reby, & Mathevon, 2013).  The only factor affecting this ability was the amount of time spent with their baby.  Studies like this indicate that similar brain regions are activated when fathers and mothers have a healthy amount of contact with their baby. Such evidence suggests that the neural networks and certain brain regions active in a father’s brain.

The scientific literature suggests that the hippocampus, prefrontal cortex (PFC), and a “parental caregiving” network is associated with paternal behavior, mood changes, and cognition(Leuner, Glasper, & Gould, 2010).  Better understanding how and where these brain changes occur has important implications in treating issues such as perinatal depression, substance abuse, and father-infant detachment.  While “dead beat” or detached dads are generally punished or incriminated for their lack of engagement, treatment for fathers based on this information may be more effective.

The Hippocampus, Prefrontal Cortex, and Paternal Behavior

The hippocampus exhibits a capacity for structural reorganization, the extent to which these structures effect functioning is still unexplored.  An increasing body of evidence suggests that the paternal experience alters behaviors associated with the hippocampus, including enhanced spatial navigation learning and reduced anxiety-like behaviors.  This hippocampus activation has been noted to be more obvious during challenging times (Franssen et al., 2011). 

During challenging times, the hormonal activation in the hippocampus of fathers is correlated with changes in performance-related, androgen, and stress-related, corticosterone.  This shows that while a father’s stress levels may be elevated, the androgen counteracts the stress.  However, the development of these paternal benefits is diminished by limited exposure time to their child and the child’s mother (Franssen et al., 2011).  It is possible how fathers who are limited in their time with children may exhibit behaviors very uncharacteristic of a “good” father.

The PFC is important in many daily functions of memory, cognition, and mood regulation.  Kin recognition has been linked to activation in the PFC of engaged fathers at birth. This suggests that fathers brain changes happen immediately upon sight of their child and experience primal paternal behavior.  This dispels the common belief that mothers have parenting instincts in parenting that fathers do not.  Fathers do have not have paternal instincts at the sight of their children.

Neural Networks and Paternal Behavior  

When studying parental brain response to infant stimuli, parenting seems to implement a global “parental caregiving” neural network (Abraham et al., 2014).  This neural network is primarily made up of two smaller networks.  The first is the “emotional processing” network associated with vigilance, salience, reward, and motivation.  The second is the mentalizing network is active in social understanding and empathy.  This parental caregiving network is not only unique to biological parents but is found instep, foster, adoptive parents, and other non-biological parents.

It possible that this caregiving network that has existed for some time.  It helps describe how parents and parent-figures can form similar bonds with nonbiological children.  This fundamentally describes the biological potential for fathers parents and that it is just a matter of time spent with the infant. This may indicate that human nurturance, whether related to parenting or other forms of committed caregiving, may support the ancient and widespread practice of “alloparental caregiving” or the practice some refer to as “being raised by a village.”