A study has shown that there are neural and psychological differences between men and women during pregnancy and that expectant fathers had a stronger brain response to infant distress faces than expectant mothers.
Although pregnancy can be conceptualized as a period of psychophysiological reorganization for expectant fathers and mothers, studies carried out on the neural and psychological responsiveness of parents have focused particularly on postpartum parenting, with a greater focus on mothers, and to a lesser extent fathers, and parenting in pregnancy more generally.
With the support of the BIAL Foundation, Helena Rutherford, Associate Professor at the Yale Child Study Center, USA, focused her research on the neural and psychological processes of fathers and mothers during pregnancy, knowing that they can be important antecedents for postpartum caregiving.
In the paper “Imagining the baby: Neural reactivity to infant distress and mind-mindedness in expectant parents”, published in April 2021 in Biological Psychology, Helena Rutherford, Madison Bunderson, Cody Bartz, Hanako Haitsuka, Elizabeth Meins, Ashley Groh and Karen Milligan disclose the results of the analysis of neural reactivity during the third trimester of pregnancy in 38 expectant mothers and 30 expectant fathers. Participants were shown images of infant distress and neutral faces while electroencephalographic activity was recorded.
“We found that expectant fathers had a stronger brain response to infant distress relative to neutral faces than expectant mothers,” says Rutherford. In addition, reactivity to images of infant distress was associated with prenatal mind-mindedness in relation to the child in future fathers, that is, expectant fathers were able to imagine what their unborn child would be like at 6 months of age, and this capacity was associated with neural reactivity to infant distress.
Knowing that the parent’s capacity to think about a child as their own person can shape the child's own development, "being able to identify early indicators of parenting even before birth can lead to new opportunities to support families during this critical period”, emphasizes the researcher.
Helena Rutherford and team from the Universities of York (UK), Missouri (USA) and Ryerson (Canada) were surprised by the results. “We did not expect to see differences in how expectant mothers and fathers responded to infant distress – or that central findings relating neural responses to infant faces and mind-mindedness were specific to expectant fathers”.
A possible explanation, reveals the researcher citing a study by Lothian (2008), is that “perhaps expectant mothers are less reliant on reactivity to infant facial cues in shaping their transition to parenthood and recognizing their child as a future psychological agent because they already experience a host of internal and external cues, at a conscious and unconscious level, signaling the progression of the child’s development during pregnancy (e.g., hormonal changes, fetal movement)”.
Learn more about the project “A psychophysiological perspective of the transformative experience of pregnancy” here.