The Science of Being a Dad

Kids do better when fathers are involved. Here's proof.

Next time you want hubby’s help in packing lunches, changing diapers, and helping with homework — cite the science.

The more fathers get involved with their kids, the better the kids will turn out. Studies back this up.

Here are five findings that will appeal to his inner scientist:

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1: New fathers get new hormones.
Recent research from the University of Michigan shows that new dads experience a significant hormone shift as they prepare to bring home a newborn. The study tracked 29 couples who were expecting their first babies; researchers collected saliva samples from the expectant fathers and mothers about every eight weeks throughout the pregnancy.

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While the hormone changes in women during pregnancy are well documented, the researchers were surprised to see the level of testosterone dropped significantly in expectant fathers.

Men in this study were more sensitive to their infant’s needs, more in tune with their baby’s moods and personalities, correlating with hormonal shifts.

Previous research showed men who got married and had children had lower testosterone levels than men who remained single and never had children. Research had also shown that new fathers’ testosterone dropped about 40 percent in the first month after the baby was born. But it isn’t just after the baby is born. The University of Michigan study showed that even thinking about and preparing mentally for a baby produced a hormone shift.

The changes have some benefits. The men who reported larger declines in testosterone were also more engaged with the babies and more supportive of their spouses. They were more sensitive to their infant’s needs, more in tune with their baby’s moods and personalities, and more affectionate toward the children.

2: A father’s love means good behavior.
A University of Notre Dame study from 2006 measured the involvement of the fathers of 134 children for the first 10 years of their lives. Roughly half these children had consistent contact and interaction with their fathers. Researchers wanted to measure the difference the fathers made in their children’s lives, and they controlled for a variety of factors, including behavior from the mothers that could have resulted in high-risk children.

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Even after controlling for numerous factors, children who had consistent contact and interaction with their fathers performed better in school when they were about 8 or 10 years old, and they had significantly higher reading and math scores. These children also had fewer behavior problems.

“At-risk fathers seem to fill stabilizing roles in children’s lives,” the researchers wrote, “protecting them from experiencing the negative influence of other contextual risks in their lives, such as violence and the presence of negative role models.”

3: Fathers lower the risk of infant mortality.
Does a father’s involvement during pregnancy and just after a child is born have any health effect during his or her first year of life? Researchers at the University of South Florida wanted to know.

They examined the records of all births in Florida from 1998 to 2005, or some 1.39 million live births. Previous studies had established that including a father’s name on a birth record was linked to high paternal involvement, so the researchers examined these records to track how many of these births reported a father present.

These links between fathers and infant mortality emerged: When fathers were absent, the infants were more likely to be born preterm, with lower birth weights. Almost all babies with absent fathers measured small for their gestational age. The neonatal death rates for infants who did not have involved fathers was nearly four times that of those babies whose fathers were present. In the case of black babies born to single mothers, these babies were seven times more likely to die in infancy.

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Babies with uninvolved fathers also consistently were tied to higher-risk or complicated pregnancies in which anemia, pre-eclampsia, and placental abruption occurred.

When fathers were absent, the infants were more likely to be born preterm, with lower birth weights.

Amina Alio, professor of community and public health at USF, concluded in the study that “a significant portion of infant deaths could be prevented if fathers were to become more involved.”

4: Dads who do the dishes have more successful daughters.
How parents divide traditional domestic duties makes a difference, especially for girls. A recent study from the University of British Columbia’s Department of Psychology suggests that “talking the talk” of supporting daughters’ career dreams makes a difference. But “walking the walk” — at least when pitching in around the house — is important, too.

The study involved 326 children, ages 7 through 13 and their parents. The authors calculated the division of chores and paid labor for each household, and also collected data on the career stereotypes as identified by the participants.

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Even when fathers spoke of how they believe in equality of the sexes, those who did little to help out at home — the mother was in charge of the cooking, cleaning, and laundry — had daughters who envisioned more stereotypical, lower-paying careers. Overall, the strongest predictor of a daughter’s professional ambitions was her father’s involvement with household chores.

5: Being a dad means having more money.
Having a child helps your career, if you’re a man. Researchers at the sociology department at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, discovered that men’s earnings power increased more than 6 percent when they had kids — if they lived with those children, that is.

The study was based on data from the National Longitudinal Survey of Youth from 1976 to 2006, which tracked people’s labor market activities. It controlled for factors like experience, education, and hours worked. But these factors contributed at most 16 percent to the pay jump.

Researchers said that most of the increase in wages was due to a positive social view of fatherhood. Employers view men who are fathers as more stable, dependable, and willing to work hard to provide for their families.

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