It takes two! Exploring sex differences in parenting neurobiology and behaviour

J Neuroendocrinol. 2019 Sep;31(9):e12721. doi: 10.1111/jne.12721. Epub 2019 May 26.


Parents lay the foundation for their children's socio-emotional experiences by sensitively responding to their needs. The hormonal and neurobiological changes that occur during the transition to parenthood importantly contribute to the parents' caregiving behaviour toward their children. Much research has emphasised the relationship between the mother, who is most often the primary caregiver, and her infant, with less focus on the role of fathers in child development. However, recent accounts have suggested that fathers also play an important role in promoting the health, development and psychosocial wellbeing of their children. Evidence from the behavioural literature has indicated that there are significant differences between typical mother-infant versus father-infant interactions. The current review aims to outline differences between maternal and paternal caregiving by discussing the differences in their biological mechanisms. First, we focus on the different hormones that are correlated with sensitive parenting behaviours in mothers and fathers. Next, we discuss the differences between neural bases of motherhood and fatherhood. Lastly, we discuss ways in which parental hormones, parental brain and parental exposure to infant cues interact to shape parental caregiving behaviour. In summary, this review highlights the distinct but complementary nature of maternal and paternal caregiving.

Keywords: brain; fathers; hormones; infant cues; mothers.

Publication types

  • Research Support, N.I.H., Extramural
  • Review

MeSH terms

  • Animals
  • Arginine Vasopressin / physiology
  • Brain / physiology*
  • Female
  • Hormones / physiology*
  • Humans
  • Male
  • Maternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Neurosecretory Systems / physiology*
  • Oxytocin / physiology
  • Paternal Behavior / physiology*
  • Prolactin / physiology
  • Sex Characteristics*
  • Testosterone / physiology


  • Hormones
  • Arginine Vasopressin
  • Testosterone
  • Oxytocin
  • Prolactin