Lots of dads are told their children look just like them. Is it true, and why does it matter?
I remember the added little thrill after my son was born of everyone saying how much he looked like me. For the first year of his life, it seemed like whenever we were together someone would comment on the similarity of his eyes, hair or chin to mine.
I was chuffed to bits. I loved having a baby son that looked like me. But I’d also like to think that, had he not shared my eyes or chin, I’d have loved him and cared for him just as much.
But would I? It’s actually a question that science throws some doubt on. A number of studies suggest that, when parents think a child looks more like dad, dad is more involved in its care and upbringing, at least in the early months.
The latest, published in the Journal of Health Economics in January, found that – in families where children lived only with mum – dads who saw a resemblance to themselves in their children spent more time with them, to the tune of two and a half extra days per month.
The upshot of that extra time was that the children enjoyed better health, on average, than the children of fathers who did not see a resemblance.
Fathers are important in raising a child, and it manifests itself in the health of the child,” said Solomon Polachek, distinguished professor at the State University of New York, one of the researchers.
“Those fathers that perceive looking like the baby spend more time with the baby.”
Why children benefit from look-a-like dads
The study looked at a specific – though common – situation, when dads don’t live with their children. But other studies have come to similar conclusions in more traditional circumstances, when both parents live with the child.
One study of two-parent families found that fathers felt emotionally closer to children that most resembled them. Another found that fathers with children who looked like them (or they thought looked like them) were less anxious.
The researchers noted that previous studies had found that when males looked more like their offspring, or thought they did, they tended to invest more emotional and material resources in those offspring.
Why might that be so? It may simply be because fathers can never be as sure of their paternity as mothers can be of their maternity. Our ancestors evolved to look for genetic cues, such as facial resemblance, to help ensure they were investing all the time and effort of fatherhood in a child that was actually their own.
Do babies look more like dads?
So if dads care more for babies they think share their looks, it stands to reason that evolution also acted to actually make babies look more like dad.
But in fact, the science is a lot less clear on this. A famous study from 1995 did indeed suggest that young children look more like dad than mum. Strangers shown pictures of babies and mums and dads were more likely to match the children to the right dad than the right mum.
The problem is, that result has not been replicated. More recent studies actually show that babies tend to look a bit like dad and a bit like mum, and there isn’t much difference in the results.
But interestingly,research has shown that new mothers are likely to find paternal similarities in their babies, even if they aren’t really there. Mums will say, “he has his dad’s eyes”, or “she has her dad’s hair” even if it isn’t true.
The scientists behind the research believe that mums have evolved this subconscious tactic to convince men they really are the fathers of their children. And as we’ve seen, when men are convinced of their paternity, they tend to stick around and help out with the baby raising.
So do babies look more like dad than mum? The evidence really isn’t clear on that. But the important thing is that everyone – including mum – seems to think so. Convincing dads of their paternity may be the reason so many of us are told that our children have our eyes, hair or chin.