Early Days for Dads
- Reflect -
As soon as he asked this question, I started thinking about something he perhaps hadn’t considered: his mental health. In addition to supporting his partner, did Mark (not his real name) realise quite how important it was to pay attention to his mental health in the run up to his child’s birth and thereafter? Paternal mental health and needs can, perhaps understandably, play second fiddle to the needs of a new mother, but they do deserve some attention. A new arrival into a parent’s life can jolt us from our carefree days into a profound state of responsibility, the scale and depth of which requires some adjustment. I still remember my husband’s face following a hospital scan of our then eight week old baby. He looked astonished, bemused, shocked and, as the weeks went on, started to express nocturnal panic regarding a whole medley of issues: how would he manage the lack of sleep given his already early starts? Was there a decent school near to home? If not, did we need to move? Did we need to find a different car?
Such anticipatory anxiety is inevitable and totally understandable. However, when a baby arrives, as joyous as it can be, the combination of sleep deprivation, intense focus on the needs of an infant and supporting a partner following the demanding physical experience of giving birth can be a testing time. If new fathers find it hard, it is not uncommon for them to feel reticent about sharing those feelings. Many feel that they have ‘no right’ to mention their worries in the context of what a partner or the mother of their baby has been through.
I would advise my friend to share any worries he has with his partner ahead of the birth of his baby, but also with parent friends who can provide advice and reassurance. Friends also offer a longer term perspective and reassurance that one grows in confidence over time as a parent; nobody had a clue what they were doing that first time round. Even if meeting up in person is tricky, online chats are easy to arrange and good to build into life after baby. Laughing about parenting together, regaling baby stories or asking for tips from friends all amount to good ways of staying connected to others. That connection keeps us feeling mentally well and supported during a period of rapid change and adjustment.
Friends serve another purpose; they can notice changes of a more concerning nature. Postpartum depression is widely understood to occur in mothers, but did you know that between 8-10% of fathers are also likely to develop depression between the first trimester of pregnancy and the first year of their baby’s life? The highest rates of postpartum depression in fathers occur between three and six months postpartum. Newly emerging evidence also suggests that fathers may also be at risk of post traumatic stress symptoms after the arrival of a new baby, particularly if the birth was very difficult.
So, my advice to my pal? Think about the support mechanisms available to your wife, your baby and yourself in the run up and following the birth of your baby. Tap into movements that promote paternal mental health sooner rather than later and find fellowship in mental health advocates like Mark Williams, who actively encourage fathers to talk openly about their mental health and to reach out for support.
During the pregnancy and thereafter, perhaps keep a journal or a note on your phone about how you are feeling, download and share the How we Feel app and with your partner, keep communication open and book a weekly chat with a good friend. When your baby arrives, give yourself time to adjust to the most magnificent, unpaid job in the world!
- Motivate -
Beginning at birth, father-child interactions can be extremely important for early child development and for building that baby-dad bond. “But how do I bond with my baby?”, my friend asked me. I found myself reassuring him that, first and foremost, his new arrival would need the three Ts: touch, talk, and time. Due to NCT classes, he already seemed knowledgeable about the importance of ‘skin to skin’ contact. Decades of evidence highlights the importance of ‘kangaroo care’ (having your baby’s skin touch your bare skin immediately after birth for mothers and babies), but a growing evidence base also advises fathers and non-birthing partners to get involved with skin-to-skin contact (SSC). This important ritual has been found to significantly improve father-child attachment, reduce stress and help dads to feel more empowered.
In the months before a baby’s arrival, there are often many animated discussions about what equipment to buy. Parents typically focus on things like functionality, affordability or even the colour of equipment, but I encouraged my friend to consider how his purchases might impact on the quality of interaction he enjoyed with his child when out and about. We’ve all seen prams that face either inwards (parent-facing), or outwards (world-facing). Does it matter? Or is a pram just a pram? Well, believe it or not, we know that having your baby facing inwards, towards you, can double the amount of parent-child interaction! Recent research has shown that infants prefer to focus on caregivers’ eyes and mouths; they follow their gaze or pay great attention to what they are doing, saying and how they are responding. Parents are babies’ guide to the world; these young eyes and ears are actively watching and listening to learn how emotion is expressed and even pick up on parental intonation, gestures and facial expressions.
As they move into toddlerhood, there is a lot of knowledge to share with my pal. When that stage approaches, I will convey the message to him relayed to me by Cambridge Professor and expert on child development, Michael Lamb. Professor Lamb talked about the importance of new dads just being themselves. He reiterated the importance of authenticity in our interactions with our children. Fathers need to be comfortable bringing who they are to the parenting table. In this way, he suggested, parental confidence grows organically and has a positive impact. We want dads to keep ‘doing things differently’, because research suggests that they do, and that such diversity of interaction in play is excellent for children’s development. Dads often play more physically, encouraging independence and exploratory behaviours. All of us are familiar with that loved one who sweeps into the room, picks up our children and tosses them into the air, much to our horror! They might invite the kids to partake in physical challenges we would deem too risky, and they adore every second of it. Take a peek at the sort of thing I am referring to here!
Over and above play, we know fathers interact with their child differently in other aspects of fathering as well; and as highlighted by child psychiatrist Dr Kyle Pruett. Dr Pruett’s work has highlighted unique differences in child discipline for example; dads tend to use more humour when attempting to reduce children’s frustration and redirect behaviour.
The chat that runs in parallel to play can also serve a critical role in developing children’s language competency. Research shows that dads may talk differently to children (using slightly more challenging, less babyish vocabulary) in oral interactions, whereas we mummies may unconsciously match our baby’s language level and simplify words for younger children. Whatever we talk to our children about, the important thing is to just keep talking! The conversational subject doesn’t matter either; you will find your baby just enjoys the chat!
As children get a little older and move into education, parental engagement in the early years can help children adjust to preschool and the research suggests paternal engagement can play a key role in that process. The Fatherhood Institute highlights a number of research findings to this effect. Verbal interactions between fathers and their infants (as described above) were found to uniquely predict preschool social competence and lower aggression in children. Talking and reading with dad was also found to help children behave better and concentrate more in a nursery setting, have better writing skills and perform better in numerical tasks. All of these interactions can help children to become school-ready and can nudge them towards feeling good about themselves which can help boost resilience.
Check out this lovely example of a dad motivating his young daughter on her first day of school. As children move into the school years, it’s encouraging to know that fathers who take a high interest in their children’s development can play a pivotal role in boosting their academic skills.
- Support -
I applauded his bravery in taking steps to seek support. Some men may struggle to open up about such a loss and to take such proactive steps towards seeking support. This is primarily done as a protection mechanism, not wanting to burden other family members (partner, children, relatives), or through a desire not to add to the grief already being experienced by their loved ones. Charities like Dad Matters and SANDS offer valuable resources for fathers who have experienced loss through miscarriage.
In general terms, we can all do much more to support paternal mental health and ensure that the men in our lives know that no matter the circumstance, there are choices and options available to them. Recently, I was reflecting on how beneficial Justin Bowen’s story of navigating grief will be for fathers who have lost a partner. His book, Fighting for This Life articulates his loss and details how he supported his two children to come to terms with the death of their mother and begin to thrive again.
Lastly, we have reflected above on how reading, talking and connecting with our children is beneficial for their wellbeing, self-esteem and self-worth. I wanted to tell you about one of my favourite charities: Storybook Dads, which is dedicated to sustaining the bond between a father and his child when dad goes to prison. This charity produces stories for children where their absent dad reads stories to them (fairytales are favourites), and each story is accompanied by wonderful musical effects and regularly sent home.
The success of Storybook dads reminds me of the power of a parent’s voice and the power of story-telling within family life as a means of boosting connection. A loving parent’s voice is one of the most unique and powerful sounds that a child can ever hear. It encases us, reassures us, calms us and the rhythm of a parent’s voice lulling a child to sleep through story-telling is one of the most ancient and wholesome interactions in the world.
I know, from talking to many dads over the years, that the lack of a positive role model in one’s own childhood can really affect confidence when it comes to engaging with their children. So it might be a good idea for my friend, who kickstarted this reflective journey into the research around fatherhood, to take time to reflect upon the relationship he had with his own father and to consider aspects of that experience he wishes to replicate or leave aside as he moves into parenthood. It’s good to reflect on the past, reframe aspects of it and to establish one’s own parenting goals moving forward.
Lastly, I am sensitive to the fact that some parents may read this week’s newsletter and worry that their child does not have a loving father in their lives. They may worry that in some way these children might suffer emotionally. This is not necessarily the case. There is plenty of evidence (that I have no space to accommodate in this week’s edition) that children flourish in a variety of family forms and circumstances. What matters most? That children enjoy a secure attachment to a caregiver, feel loved and are able to spend quality time with adults that appreciate and value them for who they are. Children are exposed to a range of caring adults, mentors, role models and educators throughout their lives, all of whom can provide the necessary validation, motivation and care that children need to truly flourish.
- Is Your School Tooled Up? -
We have lots of interesting chats on fatherhood within our Tooled Up library. We have talked to Adrienne Burgess, CEO of the Fatherhood Institute about the impact of fathers on children, Professor Michael Lamb about effective fathering, a busy CEO dad about how he achieves a decent work-life balance, and chatted to a Justin Bowen about his experience of becoming a single dad through bereavement. Same sex dads might wish to listen to an interview with Professor Susan Golombok on different family forms and outcomes, and same sex mums out there might want to tune into our inspiring conversation with Professor Tamsin Ford (current Professor of Psychiatry at Cambridge) who was parented by two mums back in the 50s and 60s.
We are planning to do more work on fatherhood over the coming months in recognition of International Fathers’ Mental Health Awareness Day in June, and to reflect the research interests of our new Head of Research here at Tooled Up, Dr Hope Christie.
Dr Christie has a particular interest in mental health, parenting and fatherhood and as such, would love to invite dads to submit questions on any aspect of parenting. We can use this information to shape the type of event we host for our Tooled Up dads. Whether you are a new dad, a dad to teens, a same-sex dad, single, married or a widowed, we would love to hear your experiences, questions and reflections. Get in touch with: email@example.com
April is just around the corner, so here’s a reminder of the live webinars and events that we have coming up over the next month or so:
17th April, 7.30pm – How Breathing Techniques can Help Children to Master a Stammer or Stutter with Monal Gajjar
21st April, 9am – 4.15pm – Online Autism Conference
25th April, 7.30pm – Andrew Tate and Toxic Influencers: A Guide for Parents and Educators with Dr Lisa Sugiura
27th April, 7.30pm – Eco-Anxiety, Sustainable Fashion and Wonderful Ways Forward with Professor Natascha Radclyffe-Thomas.
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Have a great week.