Did you know dads have superpowers? It’s true: Besides the ability to unerringly find every Lego brick with their bare feet, dads also possess lightning fast reflexes. That’s according to the multiple “Amazing Dad Reflexes!!!!!” videos perennially doing the rounds, at least, in which average-looking middle aged men suddenly dart out a hand to save their falling toddlers with the combined speed and agility of cobra crossed with a fighter pilot.
At their most extreme, there’s the guy who grabs his two kids and rolls backwards away from the wheels of a speeding car. Or Florida firefighter Shaun Cunningham, who ended up on national news when cameras caught his split-second save to stop a flying baseball bat from hitting his 8-year-old son in the face at an Atlanta Braves game. And speak to almost any dad, and they’ll share stories about near-ESP abilities when it comes to their kids’ safety.
So what’s going on here?
Let’s start at the most basic level: Reflexes are an emergency reaction of the nervous system to a threat. A reflex is an involuntary motor response to a sensory stimulus that effectively bypasses the brain — you don’t even think; your body just reacts. When you have children, though, your emergency reactions extend to their bodies, due to the bond you’ve developed. In other words, having children actually changes your brain.
“Brains aren’t static, and neurons constantly rewire themselves throughout life,” says Scientific American’s Brian Mossup. “Additional neurons can also spontaneously form, a process called neurogenesis. For example, a recent study showed that neurogenesis took place in male mice in the days following the birth of their pups.” Further: New brain cells are regulated by a hormone called prolactin, and a study at the University of Toronto found that baby-cuddling can increase a dad’s prolactin levels by up to 20 percent.
So it turns out, if you felt like someone rewired your brain after you had kids, you were right all along.
This is in stark contrast to that other occasional superhuman power, “hysterical strength,” in which people undergoing immense stress suddenly find themselves with the strength to, say, lift a car off a trapped family member. While it’s theorized that this strength could be the result of increased adrenaline, the cases of it are so rare (and anecdotal) that they’re often dismissed entirely by the scientific community.
As for those dad reflexes, it’s not just the extra hormones that make dads so responsive to their children’s welfare: According to ex-Marine and fathering expert Neil Sinclair (aka Commando Dad), it’s an emotional thing, too.
“As soon as you’re a parent and the emotional side kicks in, it makes you concentrate,” he says. “You realize, ‘I have to protect this child.’ I’ve experienced dad reflexes many times. At night, I’d wake up about 30 seconds before my children started crying — it was really strange.” (The University of Toronto study, incidentally, also found that increased levels of prolactin made dads more alert to their children crying.)
Sinclair thinks it’s akin to the heightened awareness to danger that experienced soldiers have. “Once, me and my colleagues out in the mountains in Iraq came under sniper fire. In the split second we heard the first crack of gunfire, everyone was undercover. It’s training awareness of your environment and intuition. The same thing applies when you’re looking after you kids.”
Every dad knows it: Childcare is just like war, only with slightly more vomit.