Becoming a new father is one of the most wonderful life events a man can experience. But it can also feel overwhelming. Take heart. By gaining some practical knowledge, setting realistic expectations and creating healthy habits, you can be a great dad!
Here are 10 tips to help get new dads started down the right path:
1. Understand that you matter. Study after study has shown that when children have involved, loving fathers, they learn more, perform better in school and exhibit healthier behavior. Even when fathers do not share a home with their children, their active involvement can have a lasting and positive impact.
It's easy for dads to feel like they aren't needed when their children are newborns, but the opposite is true. Whether you are in a committed relationship with the baby's mother or will just be co-parenting, the relationship you start building with your baby in his or her first few months can positively impact your child's future for years to come.
2. Get to know your child as an individual. Just as every adult is a unique individual with our own temperament, personality, interests and habits, your baby is unique too.
Nurturing your child in a way that supports her individual tendencies helps her feel loved and secure. For example, some children are naturally outgoing and self-motivated, while others are shy and may need more encouragement to try new things. Also, understanding why your child behaves the way he does will also help ease your frustration when faced with challenging parenting situations.
3. Remember that all babies cry. Crying is natural and is a baby's first method of communication. In fact, infants will continue to cry to let you know about their unmet needs until they learn to talk. He may be hungry, wet or tired.
Instead of letting frustration and anxiety build when your child cries, try to reframe the experience as, "My baby is trying to tell me what she needs." It will likely take time for you to learn what your baby's different cries mean. So be patient with yourself too, and remind yourself that each time you try to meet your baby's needs in response to her cries for help, you are building trust and teaching her that the world is a safe place.
4. Be the best version of yourself instead of trying to imitate another dad. Babies don't care about your education level or career. The great news is they don't have the capacity to compare you to other dads, and they will love you for who you are if you are attentive and kind to them.
Just be present with your child and include him at age-appropriate stages in your hobbies and interests. If you like to spend time in nature, invest in an infant carrier or jogger stroller and take her with you. If you like music, play for him. If you like sports, take her to a game to take in the action. There are countless ways to include your child in your everyday life, and he will cherish the time with you no matter how you spend it.
5. Accept that caring for a baby is a full-time responsibility. Shortly after the birth of your child, you will likely realize that this is a 24/7 kind of commitment. That’s when the overwhelm can start to set in, and it's helpful to remember that parenting is done just like every other aspect of life - one day at a time.
Creating routines around eating and sleeping, while it can be hit or miss during the newborn stage, is helpful for making the days and nights go more smoothly. Safety proofing your home is another important part of helping to ensure your child is protected as she moves into the crawler and toddler stages.
6. Familiarize yourself with basic infant development. While it's true that babies differ in when they achieve certain developmental milestones, such as sitting up or saying a first word, it's also true that babies tend to develop in important areas along a fairly specific timeline.
Knowing how your baby might develop in four key areas - physically, mentally, emotionally and socially - can help you set realistic expectations and gain more confidence as a new dad. For example, if you know that most babies start sitting up on their own at about six months, you don't need to be concerned if your baby is still wobbly at four months. A class for expectant and new dads, like PCC and Good Dads offers, will provide this information and give you ideas for encouraging your baby's development. In a pinch, a Google search will help you with the basics too.
7. Take care of yourself too. Moms are constantly told to take good care of themselves, especially during pregnancy and in the baby's first few months. But what about dads? It's just as critical that your physical and emotional needs be met during this transition time too.
If paternity time is available to you through your employer, take advantage of it. But even if you can't take much time off, implementing some simple strategies can help a lot: Sleep when the baby sleeps. Keep meals simple to avoid extra time shopping, cooking and cleaning up. If you have help available, carve out some couple time to do something enjoyable together. Parenthood can feel all-consuming, so even a few minutes of time spent in a refreshing activity can rejuvenate your body and mind.
8. Don't equate a paycheck with love. While it's important to financially provide for your family, earning a paycheck will not translate directly as love to your child. It's been said that love is spelled T-I-M-E. Spending quality time with your child is an invaluable investment that buying more stuff can never compete with. Babies' needs are basic, and they are usually content with just a few developmentally-appropriate toys (or a drawer full of plastic containers!). So focus on giving your child the things money can't buy, and you will both be happier for it.
9. Recognize that all parents feel frustrated sometimes. Having a new baby means lots of changes to routine and can impact many areas of life - physical, relational, emotional, social and financial to name a few. Those changes, coupled with lack of sleep, can lead to feelings of frustration. This is completely normal and taking small steps in managing that frustration can keep it from escalating into full-blown anger.
Try to remember that your baby's actions, no matter how frustrating, are likely normal for his age. Make a conscious effort to relax by taking deep breaths or taking a brisk walk (even inside your house if you're the only one with the baby). Give yourself permission to take a break. Place the baby in a safe place, such as her crib, and give yourself a few minutes away.
10. Ask for help. Having a support system of family or friends - even if it's just one person - to help you during this time of transition can be a game changer. Don't be afraid to rely on them, especially in the first few weeks. Accepting help is not a sign of weakness; it demonstrates maturity in recognizing that you have limits. Having someone watch the baby so you can eat, shower or sleep can make a big difference in how you feel and function.
Lisa McIntire is passionate about helping families in our community and serves as the Executive Director of Springfield’s Pregnancy Care Center (PCC) and is a member of the New Pathways for Good Dads Council. The Pregnancy Care Center is a New Pathways for Good Dads Partner and a great community resource offering a fatherhood program for expectant and new fathers, which includes fatherhood-specific classes and one-on-one coaching with male mentors.