Dad-Reflexes or How the Clumsy One Is Now Agile like a Striking Cobra

Modern Parent
Photo by Jan Kopřiva on Unsplash

I bet most of you have seen one or another video where a male saves a kid from a potentially harmful situation. In case you didn’t, I found this compilation on Youtube. Feel free to check it out to get a grasp of what this piece is all about:

Youtube video of Dad’s saving toddlers

I always wondered what happens to a man when he becomes a father. No doubt it turns his whole life upside down, but what freak of nature is going on exactly.

Take me for an example: I am clearly no hot-shot when it comes to sports or general physical abilities. Usually, I’m the one who gets voted to the team at last; rather clumsy than athletic. But the other day, something remarkable happened. We, which are my fiancée, my 2-year-old toddler, and I sat on the couch goofing around. We did some pillow fights, and my little boy was screaming with joy.

Suddenly, as he was sitting backward on the couch, he lost his balance and slipped towards the floor. Without even thinking, I leaped forward and caught him before he hit the floor with his little head. He also didn’t realize what happened and looked at me puzzled about how he ended up in my hands? I placed him back on the couch, and we went on fooling around.

But isn’t this remarkable? The clumsy, slightly over-weight guy who suddenly strikes fast and agile like a raptor when his kid is in danger of hurt or even injury?

I researched this topic, and to put the long story short, having kids really re-wires the male brain. The fight-or-flight reflex is something familiar. When threatened or in danger of life, useful decision-making patterns get an override to accelerate the reaction and, in most cases, movement.

Decision-making happens in a part of the brain called the frontal cortex, and one part of these algorithms is to avoid pain, as pain is a natural signal for hurt and/or potential threat. Sounds logical, as you would surely hesitate to stick your hand into a bush of nettles. But when standing on a hiking way in front of an upcoming rockfall, you sure as hell jump right into the nettles without even thinking.

So, in the first place, our decision-making algorithms want us to avoid pain. When it comes to a fight or flight situation, the release of the hormone adrenaline overrides some of these decision-making patterns to save time used for immediate life-saving action.

Interesting so far, but it doesn’t really answer my question why men are having these reflexes for their toddlers, too. Turns out, the brain really doesn’t only get re-wired after becoming a dad. Our brain cells are constantly making new connections when we are learning. Moreover, in a process called neurogenesis, our brain is capable of growing entirely new neurons. This process is largely supported by a hormone called prolactin. Research has shown that cuddling with their babies can lift prolactin levels in the male brain to 20 percent. The brain grows in a way that our fight-or-flight reflexes are now extended to the bodies of our toddlers, too.

Prolactine is also known to make fathers more reactive to their babies' cries too. I can totally witness that as I experience this when it is my share of taking child-sick days. When I spent the day caring for my sick toddler, it mostly involves a lot of cuddling and co-sleeping to comfort him. I experience for weeks after the sick days that I wake up more easily when he makes noises during the night.

This is quite interesting. Having a child really makes you a new person, not only in your behavior but also on an organic level. Clumsy dads are able to leap fast because their life-saving fight-or-flight reflexes are extended to the bodies of their toddlers, too.

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