Father’s genes can impact motherly love

3 August 2018

Image of a baby with the mother's hand holding its hand

A father’s genes are no longer thought to just provide a blueprint for the growth and development of their children, with research by Cardiff University finding that paternal genes affect the type of care a child receives before they are even born.

The team of researchers from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences investigated the hormonal signals given off from the placenta during pregnancy.

The placenta transports nutrients to the growing foetus during pregnancy and gives off hormonal signals in the mother’s bloodstream to establish and maintain a successful pregnancy. As well as being involved in nurturing the baby throughout the pregnancy, the placental signals are thought to be important for programming a mother’s behaviour, preparing them for their new role as a parent.

Professor Rosalind John, from Cardiff University’s School of Biosciences, said: “We have shown that the genes from the father, expressed in the placenta, can alter the hormonal signals to the mother, ultimately influencing how the mother will behave towards the baby after birth.

“We found that if the father’s gene causes an increase in these hormonal signals then the mother will spend more time caring for their offspring. But mothers exposed to lower levels of these signals will spend more time on housekeeping tasks.”

Changes in the mother’s priorities during gestation and after birth are critically important for the wellbeing of the new baby and their lifelong health. Women who do not undergo these changes may struggle to develop a maternal bond with their babies. Babies that do not receive high quality maternal care early in life are at higher risk of neurodevelopment disorders and more likely to develop mental health issues when they grow up.

“Our previous work has reported that a similar placental gene is linked to prenatal depression, and we are currently asking whether similar gene changes are associated with poor quality maternal care in the Grown in Wales Study,” added Professor John. “More work must be done to further our understanding in how this works in humans.”

The research ‘Maternal care boosted by paternal imprinting in mammals’ is published in PLOS Biology.