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Fathers’ “Maternal” Instinct Just as Reliable as a Mother’s

By Gemma Tarlach
Apr 16, 2013 7:04 PMNov 20, 2019 2:01 AM


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Mother knows best? Maybe not.

New research reveals that fathers are able to recognize whether a crying baby is their child as reliably as mothers can. This finding contradicts previous studies, and suggests that the amount of time a parent spends with his or her child, not the parent’s gender, has the greatest impact on whether the parent is able to identify the cry of a baby as his or her own. The idea that mothers are better able to recognize the cries of their own babies is a persistent stereotype, but one with some basis in biology. Many non-human mammals show distinct sex differences in the parenting department, which makes evolutionary sense: if Dad’s not going to stick around to raise his progeny, there is no reason he should have a parental instinct attuned to an offspring’s needs. Humans, however, evolved to be cooperative breeders, with the father and other non-mother caregivers, such as siblings and relatives, involved in child-rearing. To test whether fathers were as adept as mothers at identifying the cries of their own child, researchers worked with 29 families, 15 from France and 14 from the Democratic Republic of Congo. They collected six eight-second-long sequences of spontaneous crying from the families’ babies, aged 58-153 days. During two individual-listening sessions of 15 cry sequences each---a randomized order of their child’s cries as well as those of other infants in the test---mothers and fathers were asked to decide whether each cry belonged to their child. On average, parents of both sexes had a recognition rate of about 90 percent. Fathers who spent less than four hours a day with their baby, however, had a significantly lower recognition rate of about 75 percent. None of the 29 mothers tested spent less than four hours a day with their babies, making direct comparison between genders impossible when controlling for daily interaction with the child, the researchers report

in Nature Communications. According to the researchers, previous studies in this area either focused solely on mothers or did not control for the amount of time a parent spent on a daily basis with the child, two critical factors that might have skewed the findings in support of the notion of “maternal instinct.” Image courtesy of Photobac/Shutterstock

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