Calling All Dads!  (or…Some Reasons for Fathers to Stay Involved in Their Baby’s Life)

Father Involved Baby

You probably don’t need a medical blogger to tell you that people see the role of a father is seen very differently in this day and age.  Gone are the days when Dad’s major roles were breadwinner, repairman, backyard catch player, and giver of the bride, with a little bit of disciplinarian thrown in when necessary.

Yes, for a while, fathers’ (and mothers’) duties have been expanding.  Or maybe Dads have always fulfilled additional roles and it’s just been made that much more obvious.  But probably the most exciting news about this revised job description is that researchers are actually beginning to look into this increased involvement of fathers.  And they’re coming up with lots of reasons as to why this is a very good thing for infants and young children.

We’ll examine some findings from a recent report.  But first, let’s take a look at some of the ways that “fatherhood” has changed.

Not Your Father’s Father?

The typical 1950s sitcoms involve the antics of a family consisting of a husband, a wife, and children.  Yet there are all sorts of family models out there in ever-increasing numbers.  There are more unmarried couples living together and raising children, more single fathers, and more gay male couples.  Within male-female couples, an increasing proportion of stay-at-home parents are men.

Even when children are living solely with their mothers, the great majority of fathers have some involvement with their kids.  And even when a biologic Dad isn’t directly involved, as in the case of many lesbian couples and some single Moms, children may have a “father figure” in their lives, such as another relative, a donor, or a family friend.

Daddy Perks:  What the Studies Show

The American Academy of Pediatrics first began looking in detail at the role of fathers in child development about 20 years ago, and published their first report on their findings in 2004.  In 2016 they updated their report.  So much, of course, has happened in the years between the two reports:  increased educational and work opportunities for women, a recession sending many working men home, the Internet providing a support network for “nontraditional” Dads.  And during this time, a number of studies have looked at some of the positive effects of a father’s involvement in the care of an infant and young child.  Among the findings:

  • When fathers are involved during their partner’s pregnancy, good things can happen: earlier prenatal care, less prematurity and infant death, and less smoking among mothers.
  • Dad’s playing tends to be more stimulating and arousing. Dads tend to cause their babies to take more “safe risks,” which may lead to more exploration.  In contrast, Mom’s play tends to be more safe and comforting.
  • While both Mom and Dad encourage language development, fathers are more likely to use new words with the baby.

To sum it all up, mothers and fathers tend to interact with their baby in ways that complement each other.  They both bring things to the table that encourage healthy development.  And the advantages that Dad’s time confers during these critical early months appear to carry over to later childhood and even the teenage years in terms of increased healthy behaviors.

Barrier (Overcoming) Methods

We’re clearly beginning to get data regarding how the involvement of fathers is beneficial for infants and young children.  Yet for many families, making Dad available is easier said than done.  Even in two-parent families, regardless of marital status, availability of paternity leave at birth is largely lacking.  Even with paternity leave, work can ultimately intervene, decreasing time with the little one, especially when she might be up and about.

When Dad is not in the home, there are different challenges.  And we’re coming to realize the special circumstances that often dictate that fathers may not be around, such as military deployment (although increasingly this is a factor with Moms, too) and incarceration.

What Dads Can Do

There are many ways that Dads can maximize their quality time with their infants and young children:

  • Fathers should do everything they can to ensure their own good health. Moms are a bit of a “captive audience” where healthcare is concerned, generally having a medical provider throughout pregnancy and the immediate period after birth.  On the other hand, many men of childbearing age rarely see a doctor.

There are several good reasons to get plugged in to medical care; here are a few examples.  Infants are at certain risks for vaccine preventable diseases.  While an expectant mother may be vaccinated as a matter of routine, fathers are less likely to receive these immunizations.

Another area receiving attention is post-partum depression.  While mothers are regularly screened for this, it appears that fathers suffer this problem at the same rate, and can actually be screened with the same tools.  Finally, lifestyle changes may be a little easier under the watchful eye of a provider.  This becomes important when you realize, for example, that childhood obesity is more closely related to father’s weight than mother’s.

  • While one might think that Dads can feel a little left out in a breastfeeding family, there’s much that can be done. Although there may be no nutrition involved, babies enjoy skin-to-skin time with fathers too!
  • Realize the special role that playtime with fathers has in infant development. Both parents have a lot to give here.
  • Appreciate the role that Dad’s involvement with a child has on the relationship with Mom. Whatever the relationship—married, partnered, not together—the bond is likely to be stronger when parents cooperate in child rearing!
  • Finally, reach out for more information. Your pediatric provider is interested in making parenthood go well for everyone.  And don’t be afraid to seek out support from other sources which are certainly easier to access now than in the days of those 50’s sitcoms!
Stan Sack
Dr. Stan Sack has 29 years’ experience as a primary care pediatrician in Massachusetts and Florida. A medical writer since 2015, he enjoys blogging on topics that are on parents’ minds but are covered less often in books and on websites. He lives in the Florida Keys with his family and enjoys healthy cooking, fitness activities and singing in his spare time.

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