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8 New Things Science Says About Being a Dad

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Dads aren’t supposed to be complicated. Give them a mower and a lawn to cut, and they’re happy. That’s the stereotype.

But the role of father is considerably more layered and multi-dimensional—and worthy of scientific analysis. So researchers have been hard at it. Here are eight studies on fathers published since last Father’s Day:

(Hero Images/Corbis)
(Hero Images/Corbis)

Speak baby to me: For all the progress dads have made in connecting with babies, they apparently need more practice cooing. You know, that high-pitched, sing-song voice that moms have mastered so well that it’s sometimes referred to as “motherese.” Fathers just don’t do it that often, according to a recent study at Washington State University. Researchers there placed tiny recorders into the pockets of 11 preschoolers and taped a total of 150 hours of sounds and speech directed at them. Not surprisingly, every mom in the study raised the pitch of her voice and slowed her speech when talking with her young child. Most of the fathers didn’t. In fact, they usually spoke with their toddlers like they did with other adults. While previous research has suggested that small kids prefer “motherese” and that it appears to help build language skills, the coauthor of the Washington State study, Mark VanDam, believes non-cooing dads may be fulfilling a different role. He thinks that by talking like an adult, they may be providing the kid with a conversational connection to the outside world.

Dad genes: You may have been told you’re the spitting image of your mother, but a study at the University of North Carolina has determined that mammals are more like their dads in terms of their genetic makeup. We do get equal amounts of genetic mutations from our parents, and it is those mutations that make us different from other people. But this research, published in the journal Nature Genetics, concluded that we actually make use of more of the DNA we inherit from our dad. So why does this matter? Scientists say that when it comes to studying diseases passed on from parent to child, this finding suggests that it can make a difference if the genes that cause a disease come from the mother or the father.

When he’s expecting: Clearly, moms go through a lot of hormonal changes before they have a baby, but new research indicates that dads do, too. Scientists at the University of Michigan worked with 29 couples expecting their first babies. Each member of the couples provided a saliva sample every eight weeks during the pregnancy, which the researchers used to check levels of the hormones testosterone, estradiol, cortisol and progesterone. Not surprisingly, all of the hormone levels rose significantly in the expectant mothers. For the men, though, levels of testosterone and estradiol—a form of estrogen—dropped. This is the first study to indicate that a dad’s testosterone level actually can decrease before the baby is born. Researchers don’t know why this would happen, but the leader of the study, Robin Edelstein, speculated that it may have to do with the anticipation of becoming a father for the first time.

Some things never change: Dads may be a lot better these days when it comes to engaging with their kids, but they still aren’t very good at holding up their end of the housework once there’s a new child in the home. That’s the conclusion of an Ohio State study of 182 working couples who became parents for the first time. Before the baby arrived, the women and men in the study split the housework pretty evenly. But once they actually became parents, the dads did lesser share of the work around the home. On average, according to the study results, women worked an hour more at home each day than their partners did.

Job satisfaction: Dads who are able to spend time with their kids every day are more likely to feel good about their work-life situation and less likely to quit their jobs, according to a team of researchers at Northeastern University in Boston. Concluded the study’s coauthor Jamie Ladge: “One of the big takeaways is that there’s a real benefit to being an involved father. By doing so, they’ll be happier and more satisfied in their workplace, which leads to positive outcomes for their organizations.” The research also suggested that fathers who were more involved with their children didn’t have as strong a focus on their careers.

Got guilt?: It’s not just moms who feel guilty when they make decisions that take them away from their families. A study at Kansas State University says men are increasingly likely to feel bad about leaving their families to engage in sports activities or exercise. In fact, in the qualitative study of working parents, researchers found that fathers, more than mothers, said that guilt over spending time away from their children kept them from engaging in physical activities or working out. Until fairly recently, parental guilt over taking time for personal matters, such as exercising, was generally associated with moms. But, at least this research suggests that more dads are feeling it, too.

Better safe sex than sorry: A study at the University of Florida says that young women who had a good relationship with their fathers during adolescence were more likely to follow safe sex practices in college. They also, according to the research, are likely to engage in sex less frequently and with fewer partners. The findings were based on survey responses from 748 college students at a large public university in the southeastern U.S.

Sugar daddy: And what would a roundup of scientific research be without a mention of fruit flies. In a study published in the journal Cell last December, scientists reported that increasing sugar in the diet of male fruit flies for just a day or two before mating caused obesity in the resulting offspring. So, why should we care about overweight insects? Because, say scientists, there’s evidence that a similar system affects how susceptible human babies are to obesity.

Happy Father’s Day…and lay off the cookies.

Randy Rieland’s Innovations column appears on Smithsonian.com. Republished with permission. For archives, visit the Smithsonian web site.