Mothers are still seen as having a special bond with their children, in every aspect of life. Advertising and the expectation that mothers will take parental leave only add to this problem.
In a changing world, is it reasonable to believe that mothers are more capable of taking care of their children than dads? Some may argue that women have a stronger “maternal instinct”, which is part of their biology. Do hormones, parenting experiences and pregnancy really make a woman bond stronger? Let’s examine the scientific evidence.
Some experts believe that parents and their children can have a relationship before they are born. These scholars claim that antenatal bonding – the feeling of being connected to an unborn child – can be a significant predictor of the infant/mother relationship. The evidence linking feelings about the unborn baby during pregnancy and postnatal behaviour is inconsistent so it’s unclear how or if such feelings can influence relationships later on.
Even if this is true, the problem is that most research in this area was done with mothers. Now we are beginning to see that fathers also have antenatal relationships. It’s also evident that having no experience with pregnancy doesn’t necessarily mean that future relationships will be compromised. This is what surrogacy recipients who adopted children or started families know.
The bonding hormone oxytocin is commonly known as “the bonding hormone”. It is released in large quantities during pregnancy and breastfeeding. This helps regulate maternal bonding. It is less known that fathers also experience increases in oxytocin when they interact with their infants. However, there are differences in how fathers and mothers interact with their infants that seem to cause these increases in oxytocin. It is the mother’s behaviours like baby-talking, staring at their baby’s eyes, and affectionate touch. Fathers may experience an increase in oxytocin by engaging in playful touch, such as moving their baby around and presenting them with objects.
Research on bonding is not able to directly compare fathers and mothers, which can be a huge problem in understanding the differences and similarities between them. Research on bonding may not be able to compare the two. This could be because mothers are more likely to stay at home with their child than fathers. Researchers might also have difficulty finding sufficient households in which fathers play the primary caregiver role. We don’t know if fathers interact differently with their children than mothers due to biological differences, or because of their roles in child rearing and breadwinning.
How good is the understanding of their child’s needs by fathers compared to mothers? One study compared the abilities of fathers and mothers to distinguish the infant’s cries from others. It found that this was directly related to how much time they spent with their child, rather than the amount of sex. Another study has shown that infant cries can affect the hormone levels of fathers and influence how they respond to them.
We know that, while there may be subtle differences between mothers and fathers in how they understand their child’s motivations and thoughts, it is indicative of the child’s future security.
Although more research is required, evidence to support the claim that biological mothers share a stronger bond with their children than other parents is not conclusive. It doesn’t make sense to try and pin the strength and stability of these relationships on sex differences, as factors such as antenatal bonding and hormones, experience, and even our childhoods all influence each other.