With Father’s Day right around the corner, now is a great time to check in with your curriculum and confirm that you share lots of information on how fathers can connect with their new babies. In the early days and weeks after birth, mothers spend a lot of time with their newborns, getting breastfeeding well established and recovering from childbirth with their babies by their side. And this is as it should be. Fathers often can feel left out or excluded, simply because of frequent nursings and the comfort that babies get from being close to their mothers.
It is good to share with fathers that there are many ways to connect and bond with their newborns and young infants. I like to cover many of these topics throughout my childbirth education classes, so that the fathers leave feeling excited and positive about connecting with their children in these very special ways.
1. Early interaction
Connecting fathers and their newborns early in the first hours can help cement the bond between a father and his child. Dr. John Klaus and Phyllis Klaus, in their book, “Your Amazing Newborn” state that when a father is given the opportunity to play with his newborn in the first hours after birth, and make eye to eye contact, he spends considerably more time with his child in the first three months than fathers who did not have this intimate connection in the first hours. When the mother gets up to take her first shower is a wonderful time for fathers to share this early bonding time with their newborns.
2. Skin to skin
The benefits of skin to skin with a newborn are well known; temperature regulation, stress reduction, stabilization of blood sugar, release of oxytocin (the love hormone), comfort and security. Fathers can and should have skin to skin time with their newborns as soon as it makes sense to do so. Getting a new father settled in a comfortable chair, with his shirt off, a naked baby on his chest and both of them covered by a cozy blanket is a wonderful opportunity for both of them to benefit from the oxytocin release that will occur. And is there really anything better than the smell and touch of a just born baby?
3. Singing to baby
Penny Simkin has written here before on the benefits to singing to your baby in utero, and then using that familiar song once baby has been born to calm and sooth the newborn. Fathers can choose a special song or two and sing it to the baby frequently during pregnancy, and then that can become his special song to sing to the baby on the outside. A wonderful opportunity for connection and bonding between the two.
4. Bathing with baby
New babies love nothing more than taking a bath safely cradled in the arms of a parent. While most newborns don’t require frequent bathing, having the father take a bath in body temperature water with the baby on their chest is a wonderful way to relax and bond. The baby feels secure and comforted and the father can enjoy a relaxing bath while focusing on enjoying time with their newborn. Remember, safety first! Always have another adult available to hand the baby off to when entering and exiting the tub. Babies are slippery when wet.
5. Paternity leave
While the United States is hardly known for its generous leave for parents after the birth of a baby, both mothers and fathers are entitled to take up to 12 weeks of unpaid time off in the first year after the birth (or adoption) of a child according to the Family and Medical Leave Act and still have job protection. Fathers can plan to utilize this benefit and even consider using some of this leave when (and if) the mother returns to work, taking the opportunity to be the primary parent for a period of time. Planning ahead for this leave both from a financial and workload standpoint would be helpful.
6. Reading to baby
Fathers can make time everyday to read to their baby. Certainly, when very young, the baby is not understanding the words, but nevertheless, newborns and young infants are fascinated with the sound of human voices and are very comforted by being held close and listening to the voice of their father, safe and familiar. In the beginning, it is not even important what is being read, just that time is set aside to do so. Read your favorite novel, magazine or newspaper if you like! As the baby gets a bit older, you can start reading more age appropriate books with pictures that are attractive to infants.
Babywearing offers a great opportunity for fathers and babies (even newborns) to connect and bond. Most babies love to be worn, and when a father does so safely it is a chance to further strengthen the bond between a father and his child. Additionally, wearing a baby makes it easy to be out in public or doing tasks and chores around the home, or even working, depending on what type of job the father may have. There are many types of carriers on the market and families should always make sure they are using a carrier safely and responsibly, and that it fits both father and baby well. In my classroom, I have several different types of baby carriers hung on a wall, for families to try and I provide a weighted doll so that folks can get an idea of what it really feels like.
Fathers can find ways to get their much needed exercise in while also spending time with their baby. When their baby is very young, talking the baby for a walk, in a baby carrier or a stroller, is a great way to get out and burn some calories while being with their child. As the baby gets older, putting them in a child seat on a bike, using a jogging stroller, or a bike trailer, is another alternative allowing dad to pick up the pace. Consideration should always be taken to follow the instructions and age/weight guidelines that come with the equipment to prevent injury to the child.
9. Establish returning home rituals
Returning home from work after a long day offers fathers a chance to connect with and bond with their baby. Encourage fathers to have a clear transition from work to home and taking a deep breath before getting ready to be fully present with their baby when they walk in the door. Have a special ritual of greeting, welcoming the child into your arms and taking a few minutes to reconnect after a day (or night) of separation can make for a lovely opportunity for bonding and easing back into being home with those you love.
10. Father-child traditions
Fathers may want to continue traditions and special activities that they did with their fathers when they were children or consider starting some new ones of their own. Going to the donut shop for Sunday morning goodies, Friday night family movie night, attending certain community activities and sporting events all offer quality time for children to further connect with their fathers. Encourage the fathers in your class to recall the special traditions they had with their fathers or male role model, and continue the activities with their own children, or create their own new ones.
11. Parenting – not babysitting
One of my pet peeves is when I hear parents (both mothers and fathers do this) talk about how the father is “babysitting” or “watching” their children. In my mind, a father no more babysits their child than the mother does. They parent their child and sometimes that means being alone with the child and sometimes that is jointly with the other parent. I model this speech by using the term parenting vs the other alternatives that imply that spending time with their children is not something that fathers regularly do.
It can be easy to forget, especially in the sometimes chaotic first weeks and months of welcoming a baby, that fathers have a lot to offer to their new child and it benefits both the parents and the baby to establish this connection and enhance bonding early and often. Do you take the opportunity to share ideas with the families in your classes on the importance of father baby time? In honor of Father’s Day this upcoming Sunday, recommit to encouraging these and other appropriate activities to the families in your class. Please share other suggestions that you have for helping fathers to bond with their new babies.
Please note: I recognize that not every family is made up of a mother and a father, and that families all look different. Today we honor the father in celebration of Father’s Day. But a hearty thanks goes out to all the parents who work hard everyday to love and protect their children.
Klaus, M. H., & Klaus, P. H. (1998). Your amazing newborn. Da Capo Press.