How Paternity Leave Shapes A Dad's Brain For Parenthood

A study by Saxbe, on paternity leave, reveals how engaged experiences with infants can reshape the paternal brain, creating confident and instinctual dads.

Oshi Saxena
Nov 16, 2023 15:50 IST
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Parenthood is a transformative journey that extends beyond maternal instincts. Recent research has shed light on the benefits of paternity leave, revealing a profound impact on the father's brain and, consequently, the father-infant connection. Beyond fostering father-baby bonding, aiding infant development, and strengthening parental relationships, a groundbreaking revelation has emerged: the profound impact of paternity leave on paternal brain training.


This article delves into the neurological transformations occurring in the paternal brain during the crucial transition into parenthood, shedding light on how dedicated time with infants serves as a neural workout, shaping fathers into instinctual caregivers.

Understanding Brain Training

Contrary to the long-held notion that parenting instincts are inherent, contemporary research on the paternal brain has revealed a dynamic process termed "brain training." While maternal brain studies have dominated the literature, recent investigations highlight that fathers undergo similar neural changes despite lacking the physical experiences associated with pregnancy and childbirth.

Decades of research into adult neuroplasticity, and the brain's ability to adapt to experiences, pinpoint the transition into parenthood as a pivotal window for such adaptations. This shift prompted researchers like Darby Saxbe and Sofia Cárdenas to assert that "fathers are made, not born." Essential to this transformation is engaged experience, with quality one-on-one time between fathers and their infants proving instrumental in inducing functional neural changes.

The term neuroplasticity, often whispered in scientific corridors, finds its resonance in the changes witnessed in both mothers and now, fathers. Becoming a parent, a profound life-altering skill, triggers this artistic process, sculpting the brain into a masterpiece capable of new skills and empathising with nonverbal infants.

The Power of Paternity Leave


A study by Saxbe and colleagues compared brain scans of first-time fathers in California and Spain, revealing intriguing differences. As Darby Saxbe eloquently puts it, "Becoming a parent entails changes to your lifestyle and your biology."

Fathers in Spain, with access to generous paternity leave, exhibited significant changes in regions associated with sustained attention, crucial for meeting the cognitive and emotional demands of parenting. This insight showcases the impact of paternity leave as a neural workout, akin to a boot camp for developing parenting instincts.  The mechanism is simple yet profound: engaged time refines the neural network, enabling fathers to respond more quickly to their baby's needs. 

In essence, paternity leave emerges as a free brain-training program, with engaged time serving as the primary catalyst for neurobiological changes. As fathers invest time in one-on-one interactions with their infants, functional neural changes occur, enhancing their effectiveness as caregivers.

Engaged Experience and Long-Term Success

The concept of engaged time with a new baby as an investment in long-term fatherhood success is central to this discussion. This short-term commitment has the potential to yield a lifelong dividend in the form of enhanced dad instincts. The idea parallels traditional training programs, where consistent effort leads to noticeable benefits.

Initial excitement gives way to the real work, demanding dedication, tenacity, and time investment. Sleep deprivation, crying, and uncertainty—these challenges are part of the process. Expecting a learning curve akin to any training regimen, fathers are encouraged to persist through the challenging moments, understanding that the real growth and confidence in fatherhood brain training come with sustained dedication.


Taking Paternity Leave Strategically

For fathers with access to parental leave, overcoming societal norms that discourage leave-taking is crucial. Allocating dedicated time alone with the baby during leave enhances brain training. For those without access, finding engagement time outside work becomes paramount, maximizing brain training opportunities during infancy.

Decision-makers possess the influence to advocate for policies supporting parental leave. By setting an example, sharing personal experiences of brain training, and promoting cultural shifts, leaders contribute to reshaping societal perspectives on fatherhood and leave-taking. The call for parental leave extends beyond fathers. A collective effort involving grandfathers, uncles, friends, employers, and society at large is essential. 

Personal Testimony: Erez Levin

Erez Levin, a father of two and an ad-tech specialist at Google, advocates for the transformative power of paternity leave. His 12-week leave not only facilitated bonding but also nurtured independence in caretaking. Levin attests that the challenging moments during leave were instrumental in building his confidence as an independent caretaker.

As fathers embrace and leverage paternity leave, the world gains more dads with brains primed for parenting. The quest for gender equality transcends professional realms, necessitating a paradigm shift in caregiving. Encouraging men to participate actively in the caregiving world is not just a social goal; it's a neurological imperative. The more men engage in brain training through parental leave, the closer we come to a future where parenting skills are honed irrespective of gender, fostering a truly equitable society.

Suggested reading: Lack of Paternity Leaves in India And The Issue of Gendered Workspaces

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