“It is a wise father that knows his own child.”
~ William Shakespeare
Myth 1: Fathers are uninterested in babies
False. Even from the earliest days of life, most fathers express interest, curiosity and delight in their new offspring. Many dads describe their feelings of joy, excitement and even ecstasy at the sight of their newborn infant. Some even remember it as one of the peak experiences in their lives. Just as mothers dads appreciate the miracle of birth and the arrival of a new life into their social world. Changes in hospital practices over the last decades have made dads more welcome than before. Dads are more likely to be present during labor and delivery than in the past and rooming arrangements make access to their baby more feasible than when the infant is off in the newborn nursery where the father looks through the looking glass trying to locate–sometimes incorrectly–their own newborn. By being present during labor and delivery and by being able to share time with their partner and their baby afterwards, the father is set to become involved. They already feel part of the parenting team and are eager to share in the joy of parenting with their partner. In studies that watched dads with their newborn babies, they found that they are equally likely to snuggle, touch and gaze at their newborns as mothers, if given the opportunity. The myths of the disinterested dads is past and most are excited about the chance to be with their babies and share these early moments with their partner’s. Some men, to be sure, are cautious and perhaps fearful that they will harm their infant by doing something wrong. But most dads with the support and guidance of their partners and the nursing staff in the form of helpful hints about how to hold babies safely especially supporting their head and neck will quickly learn to feel more confident and comfortable and become active participants along with their partners in parenting their new infant. Starting the process of being involved early is a good way to pave the way for later involvement.
“By being present during labor and delivery and by being able to share time with
their partner and their baby afterwards, the father is set to become involved.”
Myth 2: Fathers are less competent than mothers to care for newborns and young infants
Mixed in terms of its truthfulness. It is the case that in childhood men have fewer opportunities to learn about babies and parenting skills than women. Boys and girls have very different child hood experiences, even in today’s society which offers more equal opportunities for men and women. Take a peek inside a boys room and you see vehicles such as trucks and cars, machines, army toys such as tanks and plastic soldiers and of course footballs and hockey sticks. For young infants these objects may be in the form of pictures on their bedspreads or on their curtains but no dolls are in sight. In contrast, in girl’s rooms you are more likely to see dolls, toy houses, plastic dishes and tiny strollers. Boys grow up surrounded by action oriented toys while girls encounter less action oriented but more family focused toys and props. Boys’ experience playing with trucks, footballs and toy soldiers is clearly not as helpful to their adult roles as dads as girls’ experiences playing with dolls and babysitting. But this does not mean that men are incompetent parents but simply have more to learn in a shorter time than women. Men can learn just as women did as part of their childhood experience how to execute the tasks of care giving. In fact, father incompetence has probably been exaggerated. Observations of fathers while they were bottle feeding their newborns showed that dads did a pretty good job! The babies consumed just as much milk when father was in charge of the feeding as when mother was bottle feeding the baby. Similarly dads can learn other care giving tasks such as changing diapers, especially since in many modern households diaper pins are ancient history and their paper replacements with sticky tabs are much more user (and father) friendly. And besides, even if the first few tries result in a crooked diaper, no child ever suffered long term damage from a crooked or ill fitting diaper! Dads, at least, initially are less knowledgeable about normal infant development as mothers. Their expectations of how quickly infants develop can lead to disappointment and frustration. Gaining realistic expectations about infants’ developmental timetables is important for both moms and dads. So dads, although initially not as skilled and knowledgeable as most mothers, can quickly acquire and master the basics of early infant care giving. Outdated notions of father incompetence are no reason to assume that dads are not up the task of sharing in the caregiving duties.
A word of caution: in spite of the fact that men are more competent that we generally thought, neither mothers nor fathers are always going to be “perfect” parents. Being a competent dad (or mom) means recognizing your limitations as well your strengths. Sometimes, you just have to recognize that you can’t always solve a baby’s problem even though men are socialized to be “fixers”. Babies don’t always want to eat, take a nap or have their diaper changed when you think they should. Babies sometimes are difficult to console when they are in distress (see the sections titled, “Why This Crying Is Normal ” and “Common Sense & Well Tried Soothing Methods”). So, for example, when dads fail to calm their babies or get them to eat, or sleep, they should try not to get angry and frustrated but try to keep calm and take a break or ask for help. Just as moms can’t always fix an infant’s problem, dads should remember that they are not always able to fix all the infant’s problems all the time either (see the section titled, “Parenting Well When Emotions Run High ”).
“Observations of fathers while they were bottle feeding their newborns showed that dads did a pretty good job! The babies consumed just as much milk when father was in charge of the feeding as when mother was bottle feeding the baby.”
Myth 3: Fathers are biologically unprepared to care for infants
False. It is true that mothers experience a variety of biological changes such as hormonal shifts during pregnancy and childbirth that makes them ready for parenting. These biological preparations do indeed make mothers primed to breast feed and to be responsive to their baby’s signals such as crying. For example women often experience a “let down” response in which a small amount of milk is discharged from the breast in response to the infant’s fussiness or crying.
For many years it was assumed that dads simply had to learn the parenting ropes through experience and observation but without the biological boost that eases mothers into the care giving role. However recent discoveries suggest that dads experience biological changes, albeit different from mothers experiences, around the birth of the baby too. Specifically, dads often show hormonal changes when their infant is born especially a drop in testosterone, often called the assertiveness or aggressive hormone because it is often found in higher doses in macho men such as hockey or football players. The decrease in this hormone accompanying the birth of their baby suggests that dads as well as moms are biologically primed for parenting. By experiencing a drop in testosterone, it is more likely that a father’s more nurturant, empathic and sensitive side will be evident. In fact, fathers who experienced larger drops in testosterone were more responsive to infant signals or cues such as crying and even held baby dolls longer than men who showed smaller testosterone drops. This is not an automatic process since one of the conditions that affects whether this hormonal shift in fathers occurs is whether or not men were closely involved with their partner’s during pregnancy. This suggests that close ties between partners during pregnancy may be a factor that stimulates hormonal changes in men. As in many aspects of parenting, both social experiences and biological factors are important in achieving the goal of preparing us for the challenges of parenting. Moreover, early investment and interest in the baby during pregnancy is likely to activate the hormonal system that, in turn, makes it more likely those dads will be responsive to their infants. It is clearly not just women who are biologically prepared for parenting but men too are biologically organized to be responsive to their new offspring. Biology and social factors clearly work in tandem in preparing men for parenting.
“Dads often show hormonal changes when their infant is born especially a drop in testosterone, often called the assertiveness or aggressive hormone because it is often found in higher doses in macho men such as hockey or football players.”
Myth 4: Fathers are less nurturant than mothers
False. According to cultural stereotypes, women are much more nurturant, gentle and sensitive than men. So perhaps men are less prepared to offer love and sensitivity that babies need to thrive. Again it just is not true. Men are just as capable as women of providing the kind of gentle, loving care that babies need. Watching dads with their newborns, observers have found that they talked, touched and rocked their babies just as much as moms. Moms smiled more at their infants than dads but then women smile more at everyone, not just babies. With this exception mothers and fathers behave in very similar ways when they are with their infants. However, successful parenting requires not just lots of stroking and talking but providing this stimulation in ways that are responsive to the babies social signals such as crying, cooing or moving. Do dads respond to infant social signals in a timely and appropriate way just as mothers do or at least are expected to do? Again, yes. Fathers clearly watch and track their babies closely and learn to respond to their baby’s social requests in a contingent way. When fathers talk, touch and look at their babies, their actions are far from random. Instead even with young infants fathers are just as likely as mothers to answer the baby’s signals in a meaningful way; if the baby coos they will talk to their baby –“really you are cute” or “is that true.” These are the early beginnings of conversations between the infant and caretaker. Granted with young infants the parents carry a larger share of the social burden but these early verbal exchanges are important aids in helping infants learn about their language and the basic rules of communication such as turn taking and pauses. If the baby shows distress fathers will adjust their behavior, try to figure out the problem and try to calm the baby by gently rocking or offering a bottle or pacifier or if mother is breast feeding pass the infant along to mom (see section titled “Soothing Techniques”). Dads as well as moms are not only nurturant but sensitive and responsive parents who organize their behavior in response to the baby’s early social messages.
“Men are just as capable as women of providing the kind of gentle, loving care that babies need. Watching dads with their newborns, observers have found that they talked, touched and rocked their babies just as much as moms.”
Myth 5: Fathers do not know how to talk to babies
False. In most cultures of the world caregivers talk to babies in different ways than they talk to either older children or other adults. This special form is called “Baby Talk” and often called “Motherese” or a special way that mothers talk to infants. But it turns out that motherese is not just the way moms talk to babies, dads do it as well and perhaps should be called “Parentese” in recognition that dads use baby talk too. When we talk to babies we change our speaking style. We talk slower “Hiiiii baaaby”. We use shorter phrases “good baby,” “pretty girl,” “you’re a sweetie.” No Long winded speeches because they just put babies to sleep! We repeat ourselves as well “Hey cutie, Hey cutie, Hey cutie.” And dads adjust their speech just the way mothers do. This is good news because this type of simplified speech is an effective way of gaining the baby’s attention and holding their attention which provides the baby with ample opportunity to become familiar with their caregiver’s voice and facial features. In short, this kind of engaging speech supports the familiarization process and speeds up the baby’s recognition of his/her caregiver and of course, provides mini speech lessons as well. It is no wonder that parents across the globe talk to babies this way!
Are Mothers and Fathers Interchangeable? by Ross Parke, PhD
Getting Dads More Involved by Ross Parke, PhD
Fatherhood: When the worries settle in by National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome
Becoming Attached to Your Baby by National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome
The Military Dad: Dealing with Deployment by National Center on Shaken Baby Syndrome