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

By Gemma Tarlach | April 16, 2013 10:04 am

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

CATEGORIZED UNDER: Living World, top posts
MORE ABOUT: fatherhood, parenting
  • Margaret Pless

    If you exclude men from the study who spend less than four hours per day with their children, the discrepancy is controlled for and comparison becomes possible.

  • kaosethema

    Thank you! Sick of the feminazi propaganda that makes men look like bumbling fools around kitchens and cribs, good only for cannon fodder and alimony.

    • Ari Shinsky

      actually, that isn’t feminism that says that. feminism would, in fact help both men AND women. feminism would get rid of the stigma attached to expressing negative emotions as a man, the whole “you _____ like a girl,” etc. if any “feminist” tells you that men are “bumbling fools” around kitchens and cribs, that person, in fact is not actually a feminist no matter how much they try to tell you they are. more likely, they are misandrist (the opposite of misogynist).

      Bottom line, i understand your point, but that is not feminism.

      • KaoseThema

        I agree, that is not feminism. this is why I called it ‘feminazi propaganda.’ as the son of a single mom and the father of a daughter, I fully understand the roots of TRUE feminism. I once considered myself quite the feminist. unfortunately, the main goal of feminism has been hijacked by a few, angry women that openly, and quite loudly, hate men as a whole. feminism died in the nineties. TODAY, feminazism is about supremacy, about the total domination of men.

        also, thank you for explaining what misandry is but I already know what that is.

    • Ari Shinsky

      Also, yes, I am aware that you commented this 4 years ago. But I just saw it today

    • Farco

      How is that a result of “feminazi propaganda”? Before feminism fathers were largely absent from childcare, especially that of young children. The idea that women were better carers for babies was much more deeply ingrained. I’ve never seen a feminist activist claim that men are bad with children, to the contrary, they’ll say that men are just at good at it as women are, and that they should take some of the burden off their spouse’s shoulders. Free women up to go do something else.

      Maybe you have a point in that feminism hasn’t put negative stereotypes towards men as high on the agenda as they should have, but the idea that these misconceptions are a result of feminist activism of any kind is ridiculous.

  • Karen Vanreenan

    My son always was the father /mother figure

  • Candy Joelle Varvel

    Anyone who spends more time around a baby will be able to differentiate between cries of that child from others. This doesn’t prove anything about instincts, it proves we all have ears and hearing the same thing over and over helps us to start hearing differences and makes it easier to recognize. Same as if you first meet a set of twins and can’t tell the difference. Spend a little bit of time with them and soon you will pick up on differences and can identify each individually. This “study” is more on how we can use our lovely 5 (+?) senses to identify what we have been exposed to repeatedly. I am sorry, but not sorry for not being impressed by this article.

  • curtis brumfield

    problem is everybody looks at men “CANCER’S” and don’t want to accept them in social society because of the Maternal Instinct

    • curtis brumfield

      all i want to be is understood.


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