Hands-on Fathers

Saturday, October 1st, 2011 by Dr Lin Day

Fathers who are involved with the pregnancy hold their babies immediately after the birth and share routine activities with the mother such as feeding and changing, bathing and bedtime, and they have a better chance of bonding with them. The most important factor in creating attachment is close physical contact.Fathers who devote quality time to their babies and respond sensitively to their needs give them a far greater chance of becoming confident, optimistic, motivated, healthy adults. The father’s attention, warmth, and affection can have a major influence on their emotional and social well-being and academic achievement in later life. Therefore, it is essential for dads to spend time with their babies from the very beginning. Dads also develop lifelong bonds with their babies that cannot be formed in any other way.

Is it true that dads can benefit too - that it’s chemically bonding and stress reducing for dads to spend time with their baby?

Close physical contact is the simplest and most effective way for dads to chemically bond with their babies. Cuddling, skin-to-skin contact and massage releases oxytocin, a hormone that reduces stress and heightens the father’s feelings towards his baby. Oxytocin has been called the bonding hormone for its role in facilitating pair-bonding and long-term attachment. It can cause permanent beneficial brain changes in both the father and the baby.

Frequent proximity and touch between the father and baby can stimulate a surge of opioids (pleasure hormones), which act as buffers against stress. Opioid release in the baby can also be promoted by the smell of his aftershave, his voice and facial expressions and his hugs and kisses. Quality interactions with the baby also increase production of the hormone vasopressin, which promotes bonding and increases the father’s drive to stay at home with his family. For this reason, it is often described as the monogamy hormone

Do dads bring something to the mix that new mums don’t, or are there studies to suggest that dads play or bond differently to the way mums will with babies?

Mothers and fathers bring different strengths and styles to their parenting roles. These roles complement each other and both are important for the healthy development of the baby. For example, dads may encourage physical skills such as crawling, climbing and walking and provide stimulating interaction such as tickling and teasing. Mothers, however, are more likely to offer comfort and protection from harm, which offers reassurance and security. The father’s style of talking may also be more brief and directive than the mother’s, whose language may be softer and more descriptive. Both styles of interaction are critical for development.

Studies have shown that girls who grow up with a loving, involved father are more likely to have healthy and emotionally balanced relationships with males in later life. Boys who grow up with a loving, involved father are more likely to behave less aggressively because they have been shown how to channel their masculinity in positive ways.

Babies who have benefited from paternal interactions from an early age get on better with their peers, are academically more successful, stay in school longer, use drugs and alcohol less frequently and are less likely to get involved with crime. They may also be better equipped socially and psychologically than infants who receive very little attention from their fathers.

Some dads claims babies are a bit ‘boring’ or don’t really do anything at the early stage - but I understand that there are plenty of little games dads can play that enhance their baby’s development too. Can you give me some examples?

Research consistently shows that the quality and content of involvement is far more important than the quantity of time that dads spend with their babies. Through quality interactions, dads can develop a special relationship with their babies and provide rich opportunities for learning and development.

Dads can add to baby development in a unique, fun and important way. For example, they can encourage exploratory skills by building mountains with pillows and by making dens and tunnels with boxes. Dads can also channel their own and their baby’s energies by engaging in musical activities with pots, pans and wooden spoons and through rough-housing activities such as tickling, bouncing and lifting them up into the air.

Dads can expand their baby’s horizons by playing with toys in non-traditional ways. For example, they can put a toy on their head, play peek-a-boo with the newspaper or throw a cushion instead of sitting on it. Dads can show their babies how a new toy works or get involved in activities such as rolling a ball back and forth.

Other types of play that dads enjoy might include a trip to the zoo or the beach, taking their babies swimming or to the park, going on a nature walk and involving them in outside activities such as sweeping up leaves, watering plants and going on a night-time adventure with a flashlight. Babies also know that their dads are fun to be with.

For dads who find it difficult to know what to say to their babies, reading a sporting or gardening magazine provides a wonderful opportunity for babies to cuddle close, to look at the pictures and to listen to the sound of his voice.

Fathers are just as essential to healthy child development as mothers. However, the key factor in the father’s level of paternal involvement is the mother’s attitude about his competence in care-giving and comfort. Her willingness to share the care of the baby is the most important factor in determining his future involvement.

Dr Lin Day founded Baby Sensory – www.babysensory.com - the only provider of baby development classes designed specifically for babies from birth to 13 months. The classes are run in over 200 locations throughout the UK and in 12 countries including the US, Australia, Spain and China.

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