The secret superpowers of every dad

Ready or not, you're a dad! Don't worry—nature is tweaking your brain and body in ways that'll ensure you're just the right man for the job.

By Peter McMahon
Photo: iStockphoto Photo: iStockphoto

You’d swear Andy Corbett was a martial arts expert—or a plainclothes superhero. He’s sitting at a picnic table with his sons, Pierce, four, and Garret, two, when his hand darts out to catch a falling sippy cup in mid-air. Calmly, he places it back on the table and continues to tuck into the lunch he’s sharing with the boys at a chili cook-off near their home in Peterborough, Ont.

I’ve definitely noticed an increase in my reflexes since I’ve become a father,” Corbett says, rescuing the second cup. “It’s a handy skill,” he continues, nonplussed. “It’s prepared me to catch the boys before they fell off climbers or slides.”

Does Corbett’s calm preparedness come from simple practice, or is there an innate sort of Spidey sense attached to being a father? And what other parenting skills are specific to the male of the species?

Earth needs dads
In vitro fertilization won the 2010 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine—a reminder to women that an ongoing male presence, or, heck, even mating, are no longer requirements for making a baby. Even pop culture riffs on the topic: In an episode of TV’s The Big Bang Theory, Sheldon is given a napkin used by his hero, the actor who played Spock in Star Trek. He posits that with a viable ovum and DNA from the napkin, he could “grow” his own Leonard Nimoy.

But while modern science at least comically allows us to consider life without dads, a number of recent studies show that kids are better off having them around. Researchers at the University of California concluded in a 2006 study that fathers actually play a larger role in speech development than moms. They found that, on average, dads spend less time engaged in “baby talk” and tend to use larger words. This more challenging means of communication may stimulate baby’s vocabulary and encourage the development of complex language concepts such as wit and sarcasm (which we planned for all along…).

This is your brain on fatherhood This is the time of life when a man goes from relishing that satisfying burp after downing a good beer to revelling in the satisfaction of burping the little person he’s co-created. Male brains change with the onset of fatherhood — but science still hasn’t figured exactly how or to what degree.


“Research suggests that having a child is a strong motivator for behavioural change in men,” says Joy Johnson, scientific director of the Institute of Gender and Health in Vancouver. Changes could result in a dad quitting smoking, exercising more so that he can play with his kids, and cutting back his drinking. “There isn’t yet concrete evidence to that effect, though. Reproductive health focuses almost exclusively on women, but fathers are playing an increasing role in parenting and we need to support them better,” says Johnson. To that end, the institute recently launched funding for research on men’s health issues, including fathering.

Independent of this initiative, Samuel Weiss, a professor and director of the University of Calgary’s Hotchkiss Brain Institute, has discovered that fathering may set up male brains on a cellular level for looking after their young. “There have been lots of anecdotal studies that suggest mothers form a bond through smell with babies, and that continues for a time, perhaps a lifetime,” says Weiss. “But similar things hadn’t been documented with males.” That is until May 2010 when Weiss and his team discovered that as male mice interacted with their newborn babies, new brain cells developed in each father’s olfactory bulb (the part of the brain responsible for sense of smell) and in the hippocampus (which is responsible for memory). Weeks after the fathers were separated from their babies, they retained a bond with the young they were able to smell, and could distinguish their offspring from unrelated mice. In other words, the mouse fathers who spent time with their young never forgot them.

It all starts with “sympathy weight”—the tendency for men to pack on pounds when their partners are pregnant. According to a 2009 OnePoll survey published in The New York Times, men gained an average of 14 pounds while the women in their lives were expecting. The dads themselves suggested four main reasons for bulking up: eating out more with baby on the way; more snacks available around the house; intentionally gaining to make their partners feel better; and eating larger portions served by their partners. And while weight gain is just one of the trials new parents undergo (sleep deprivation, anyone?), research is revealing dramatic hormonal changes specific to men when they become dads.

During and after a partner’s pregnancy, dads’ testosterone levels fall as much as 33 percent, according to researchers at Memorial University in St. John’s. While both men and women produce this sex hormone (men, in their testes, and women, in their ovaries), testosterone is what makes men archetypically male: Among other things, it’s responsible for healthy sperm production, and is linked to risk-taking and aggression. So it’s thought that lower levels of testosterone prepare Dad to be more nurturing and understanding, and encourage him to want to comfort his newborn child rather than compete with baby for Mom’s affection.

At the same time, new fathers often experience an increase in the female hormone prolactin, which is known to prompt many animals to nest. And research shows that just 15 minutes of baby cuddling can increase dads’ prolactin levels by up to 20 percent. Scientists at the University of Toronto have found that men with high prolactin levels are also more likely to be alert to their babies’ cries.


Could prolactin also be at the root of the razor-sharp reflexes that dads like Andy Corbett call upon every day? Science hasn’t corroborated that link yet, but certainly many dads report developing a sort of parenting ESP. Joe Terry of Cobourg, Ont., says he has a sixth sense for knowing when his six kids, ages one through 10, are in a precarious situation. And sometimes that heightened awareness of impending danger is for his own protection: “When you’re sitting on the couch and your kids come flying through the air, they always seem to land on your crotch,” Terry jokes.

Dad to the rescue Being armed with that sixth sense for danger has made Andy Corbett more comfortable with letting his young boys play beyond arms’ reach. “I’m not afraid to let them go off on their own, thanks to earlier scares when my senses were tingling” — a reliable signal that one of his sons would need help.

Sometimes the instinct to protect can give rise to some, er, uncharacteristic behaviours, as Shawn Drake,* a Hamilton dad of two teen daughters, discovered on a family vacation in Cuba. A young man who’d been drinking approached Drake’s daughters, threatening them. “There was just something visceral that went off,” Drake recalls. Like a superhero protecting the innocent, he leaped in front of the assailant—and landed a punch. Afterward, Drake got a lecture from one of his daughters, but an off-to-the-side smile from his wife.

That protective instincts like Drake’s may be innate is no surprise to Samuel Weiss, the researcher from Calgary. In seeking to show how “father-enhancing” cells grew in the brains of mice, Weiss has provided the strongest evidence yet that fathering is built right into the minds and bodies of mammals. “I think the message this sends is that, given the opportunity, males can rise to the occasion and demonstrate a significant capacity for interactions and important long-term bonds with offspring,” says Weiss. Translation: Give dads a chance and they make great parents.

You probably already knew that. But it sure is good to get backup from those guys in the white lab coats.


*Name changed by request.

Celebrity dads on fatherhood

"Rowan occasionally picks up a guitar and writes a song. Any time a microphone is on in the studio, they all need their turn at recording themselves singing. It’s also getting to the point where sitting down for a meal with them is mind-blowing. The questions are fascinating, as you can imagine from curious five- and six-year-olds." – Raine Maida, musician, dad to sons Rowan, Lucca and Salvador

"When I was 25 and Jane was born, I realized I had to live for someone else. As you grow up, you realize it’s more fun not to be thinking about yourself all the time." – Jim Carrey, actor

"In the beginning, the hard part is the nap and the feeding and the schedule and the playdates. Then when they get older and can wipe their own behind, you’re busy with emotional issues and developmental issues. I lived every day believing that kids really need one good parent. I had had a very happy childhood.… I just wanted my kids to have that." – Rick Moranis, actor, on being a widowed single father to two children

"I want my son to wear a helmet 24 hours a day. If it was socially acceptable, I’d be the first one to have my kid in a full helmet and, like, a cage across his face mask. I make my wife crazy with it because I’m constantly worrying. And he’s going to find me and my wife incredibly unfunny." – Will Arnett, actor, on son Archibald


“When I was a boy, my father was a bigger-than-life figure, a wonderful storyteller. He was my hero. He took me camping and fishing, and instilled in me a love of nature and the outdoors. I think about the important lessons I want to pass on to my children and grandchildren — and I realize they are the same lessons I got from Dad. I can’t help thinking they are not quaint ideas from the past but very modern ones that we need desperately today.” – David Suzuki, environmentalist

"Always be available to your kids. Because if you say, “Give me five minutes, give me 10 minutes,” it’ll be 15, it’ll be 20. And then when you get there, the shine will have worn off whatever it is they wanted to share with you. I’ve never gotten up to see something one of my kids wanted to show me and not been rewarded." – Michael J. Fox, actor, on kids Sam, Aquinnah, Schuyler and Esme

"You gotta be involved. The other day, I had her on my chest and she peed on me. But babies are like bunny rabbits. When they pee on you, it means they like you. The first time I saw her, time stood still. It took my breath away." – Jason Priestley, actor, on daughter Ava

This article was originally published in May 2011.


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