Research highlight

Neuroscience: Fathers wade in on maternal instinct theories

Nature Communications

April 17, 2013

Fathers can be as good as mothers at recognizing the cries of their offspring, reports a study in Nature Communications this week. These findings go against the commonly held belief that mothers are better at recognizing their own infant’s vocalisations than fathers.

The ability of parents to identify individual characteristics of their offspring’s cries plays a role in facilitating the provision of adapted care. According to maternal instinct hypotheses, mothers should be better than fathers in performing these tasks. However, previous studies have either focussed solely on the on mothers, or have not controlled for the amount of time spent by parents of either sex with their baby. Nicolas Mathevon and colleagues carry out a controlled study in human subjects from France and the Democratic Republic of Congo whereby they assess parents’ ability to recognize their own baby on the basis of their cries, against the cries of other babies of the same age. They find that both fathers and mothers can equally recognize their own baby from their cries, and that the only crucial factor affecting this ability is the amount of time spent by the parent with their own baby.

The authors conclude that experience, rather than sex-specific innate predispositions, are important in determining a parent’s ability to recognize their own baby on the basis of their cries. They hope that this study will provide a basis for establishing how a wider range of variables affect recognition skills, and whether they similarly affect parents of both sexes.

doi: 10.1038/ncomms2713

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