Tips to Help Fathers Bond with Their Babies

Tips to Help Fathers Bond with Their Babies

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Forming close ties with a newborn can be difficult for fathers, but that relationship has lasting benefits.


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Let’s face it: Parenthood is scary for both new mothers and fathers. One of the scariest moments of all, in fact, comes when they’re handed their infant in the hospital. What happens next, though, can be very different for women versus men. Mothers tend to bond with their newborns immediately, but some fathers struggle to feel that special closeness.

So what makes for a rough start to fatherhood? It isn’t only about biology: Social stereotypes, the workplace, and gender role expectations are all partly to blame. Although the U.S. Department of Labor says that paternity leave—especially longer leaves of several weeks or months—can promote parent-child bonding, improve outcomes for children, and even increase gender equality at home and work, many new fathers don’t take it. While New York’s paid family leave is certainly encouraging more new dads to step off from the workplace for a little while, there is still a serious imbalance between maternity and paternity leave.

Fathers are pressured by society and employers to return to work much sooner than they should. They are seen as breadwinners, not caregivers, unless they have the option to be a stay-at-home dad. Unfortunately, according to the DOL, fewer than half the countries in the world provide men with access to paid leave to care for a new child, while virtually all provide paid maternity leaves. On average, 70 percent of new fathers take 10 days or fewer after their baby is born—not nearly enough time to adjust to parenthood and create that everlasting bond with their child.
    

Confidence and Patience Are Key

“The process of bonding with a new baby is natural for most mothers,” says Mary Beth Steinfeld, M.D., developmental and behavioral pediatrician at University of California Davis Medical Center and University of California Davis Children’s Hospital. A mother’s instincts generally kick in immediately as she starts to differentiate her baby’s cries, wants, and needs based on body language alone. But not all women jump right into motherhood knowing exactly what to do and when. In those instances, “giving the father time to bond with the baby can be a crucial step,” says Christina Johnson, mother of an 8-month-old.

A father may also be able to take the lead when a mother has a complicated delivery such as an emergency C-section, which was the case for Johnson. “For the first few days I wasn’t able to do anything,” she says. “He was the one who fed and changed her.” In situations like this one, a father has an opportune moment to step in and not only help the mother but create his own bond starting right after delivery.

Even when the moment arises, though, “fathers often feel less confident than new mothers,” according to Dr. Steinfeld. Here is what most people don’t realize: Fathers “can become just as nurturing as mothers,” and “are capable of a strong bonding attachment to their infants during the newborn period,” says William Sears, M.D., associate professor of pediatrics at University of California Irvine School of Medicine.

In fact, there’s scientific evidence to back up that statement. Although dads are not involved in some of the physical aspects of child rearing, such as birthing or breast-feeding, research has discovered they show elevated levels of oxytocin that match the oxytocin levels in mothers. Oxytocin plays a major role in making “a healthy father-baby bond,” says Ruth Feldman, Ph.D., a professor of developmental social neuroscience at Bar-Ilan University in Israel.

A baby’s instant attachment to mom may seem like a blockade for some dads, but for Brandon Foltz, Salvatore Ferro, John Fountain, and Chad Patoray, it was never an issue. These dads, who have children ranging in age from 6 weeks to 16 years, say they were just happy to be new fathers to their babies. They too wanted to succeed, protect their children, be involved, and do better than their own parents. Although they may not be the ones who gave birth to their babies, they’ve been more than capable of connecting with their children on a mental and emotional level, as well as participating in their newborn’s care.
        

A Relationship Worth the Work

Although not all fathers find it easy to bond with their baby right from birth, it’s worth working at the relationship, experts say. A study by the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic, & Neonatal Nursing found that when fathers delay bonding with their newborns, they risk altering the long-term course of paternal involvement as the infant progresses throughout childhood and adolescence. Delayed bonding also increases the risk that a dad will experience postpartum depression, the study discovered.

Perseverance is key. “For dads, it sometimes seems difficult to bond with their newborns because they always seem to want their mom,” Ferro explains. “What I used to do is if the baby started crying, instead of my wife holding him, I would pick him up, cradle him, talk or sing to him, and wait for him to fall asleep. As he got a little older, whenever he would cry he would reach his arms out for me.”

Infants aren’t always the most exciting to watch or interact with, which may make it frustrating to find a way to connect. “When your child is an infant, it’s tough for a male to bond. At first, he just lies there and does nothing,” Foltz admits. His advice? “Take it in because he is always changing and molding. My baby, at six weeks, doesn’t even look the same as when he was born. His habits are always changing too, i.e. feedings, changings, and different cries. The more you know, the more you understand.” As the baby continues to grow and form a distinct personality, the relationship between father and baby will become more lively and obvious.

Other things Fountain, Foltz, Ferro, and Patoray say they did to bond with their babies include taking their infants for a walk to give their wife a break, talking to them, holding them as much as possible, playing with them, sleeping next to them, having skin-to-skin contact, doing tummy time on the activity mat together, and giving lots of hugs and kisses. Additionally, mothers can hand off the responsibility of feeding their infant to Dad. (If their infant is breast-fed, Mom can pump and allow Dad to bottle-feed the baby.) This way the father gets the same kind of intimate, private bonding time as the mother does.
     

Bonding Beyond Infancy

As infants get older, the way fathers bond with them naturally shifts, too. Foltz, Fontain, Patoray, and Ferro share ideas for continued father-child closeness:

  • Shoulder a fair share of child-care chores. Foltz stresses the importance of taking over some of the day-to-day child-rearing tasks such as bath time and diaper changes.
        
  • Be there for the child. Patoray urges fathers to “not miss a thing,” from major milestones to little moments such as snuggling together with a book.
        
  • Resist taking the easy way out when watching your child. Fountain advises fathers to play with their children, not just put them in front of the TV.
        
  • Use favorite hobbies and interests as a way to connect. Ferro says that passing down his love for soccer very early on enabled him and his son to have a common interest in later years.

Johnson agrees that the little things, like changing a stinky diaper or reading a story, “go a long way.” These are all moments that matter in children’s development and bond creation with their father. As unsatisfying as it may seem at the time, it ultimately adds up to a wonderful father-baby relationship.

 

From Our Sponsor:

The mission of Allied Foundation is to impact and improve the health and well-being of residents within Allied Physicians Group’s geographical footprint, which currently includes Long Island (Nassau and Suffolk), Queens, Brooklyn, Richmond, Westchester, Rockland, and Orange. The Allied Foundation funds community-based strategies and initiatives, including Breastfeeding Support (toll-free Support Line: 866-621-2769; Breast Milk Depots), Community Education (free app—AlliedPG—and lectures about such topics as ADHD, managing food allergies, behavioral health, and infant CPR), Early Childhood Literacy (proud partner of Reach Out and Read and The BookFairies); and Community Service (Diaper Bank of Long Island). For more information, visit alliedfoundation.org.

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