Nov 26, 2023 - Health

Paternity leave pays "lifelong dividend" in parental instincts, research finds

Illustration of a brain drawn on a calendar page.

Illustration: Shoshana Gordon/Axios

Spending quality time with a newborn can shape new fathers' brains and have a lasting impact on their parenting instincts, new research shows.

Why it matters: The transitional period into parenthood is key for "building the fathering brain," researchers found, but the U.S. lags behind most of the rest of the world in its paternity leave policies.

  • "Spending engaged time with your new baby is a rare opportunity for long-term success in fatherhood," the Harvard Business Review wrote.
  • "This short-term time investment has the potential to pay a lifelong dividend in dad instincts."

What they found: Early stages of parenthood are significant for adult neuroplasticity, or the brain's structural changes in response to experiences, according to University of Southern California researchers.

  • By spending quality one-on-one time with the newborn, the changes observed in fathers' brains corresponds with a similar change in mothers' brains in response to parenting, caregiving, pregnancy and lactation, said psychologist and researcher Darby Saxbe.
  • In a study of first-time fathers in Spain versus those in California, the fathers in Spain experienced changes in the brain associated with sustained attention.
  • Researchers determined the changes could translate to them being better prepared for the emotional and cognitive demands of fatherhood.

The big picture: The U.S. is an outlier when it comes to paternity leave policies.

  • 63% of countries around the world provide guaranteed paid parental leave for new fathers, according to a 2023 analysis.
  • Paid family leave laws were enacted in 13 states and Washington, D.C. as of September, according to the Bipartisan Policy Center.

What we're watching: Lawmakers in the House of Representatives' Bipartisan Paid Family Leave Working Group said in November that they would propose legislation in the coming months.

Go deeper: America's paternity leave patchwork

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