A biological insight into fatherhood: Toward understanding the role of oxytocin regulation

As fathers’ engagement increase in daily caregiving - at least in many Western societies - understanding the neuroendocrine mechanisms underlying fatherhood becomes a relevant topic in developmental psychobiology research. Extensive literature has linked oxytocin (OT) with maternal bonding, sensitivity and other behavioral characteristics of "appropriate" parenting. Nonetheless, less is known about the role of OT in human fatherhood and paternal caregiving.

We recently published a systematic review on methods and findings of previous OT research in human fathers was carried. Twenty‐four studies - reporting on more than 700 fathers - were included and analyzed. Significant variability emerged in the research methods including laboratory tasks, assessment methods, and outcome measures.


One of the major finding was that fathers' OT levels appear to increase only after the birth of the child and seems to be related to the actual involvement of dads in direct caregiving activities. In other words, the more the fathers engage in interaction with their child, the higher the secretion of OT. Contrary to transition to motherhood - where hormonal adjustments occur in pregnancy - the transition to fatherhood seems to be much more susceptible to hormonal regulations that rely on environmental exposures and on the direct contact with the child.


This review also highlights relevant issues and limitations of peripheral OT assessment in human subjects. Further steps are needed in obtaining reliable and valid measures of OT in peripheral tissues, as no access to brain OT is available in humans. Coping with this and other methodological issues requires dedicated efforts and methodological suggestions are provided to guide future advances in this field.

Grumi S, Saracino A, Volling B, Provenzi L (2021) A systematic review of human paternal oxytocin: Insights into the methodology and what we know so far. Developmental Psychobiology, in press. https://doi.org/10.1002/dev.22116

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