When it comes to physical strength, men have a natural advantage. Their body chemistry, e.g., higher levels of testosterone, contributes to greater muscle mass and overall strength. It also influences bone growth and strength. In short, in some ways dads are physiologically programmed to be natural protectors, but they sometimes struggle with warmth, nurturing and attachment.
Women, typically, are not as strong as men, but they have other advantages. When it comes to nurturing a newborn, moms have a hormonal benefit. Their body chemistry shifts to prepare their brains for attachment to their child from the moment of conception. During the nine months of pregnancy, moms experience a continued hormonal cocktail that increases the likelihood they will be in love with their child before they see her. When you think of it, this hormonal advantage in women makes sense because a baby’s survival is dependent on his mother’s ability to feed and care for him.
And yet, we know that babies do best when both mom and dad are involved in their care. Certainly, a child may be raised by one parent, but we know from hundreds of studies that children do best when they have the attention and resources of both parents.
How then, does a father develop the same sort of attachment to his child that is so evident in mothers?
Over the last several decades, research has focused on changes in a mother’s brain during pregnancy and birth. Recently, new research shows similar changes in a father’s brain. The amazing thing is that these changes occur in dads even though they do not have the actual physical experience of pregnancy, birth, and all the related hormonal changes.
So how do these changes occur?
A father must spend time with his child—hold and cuddle his infant, care for his baby’s needs and talk to his child. Mother is naturally programmed to care for a child’s nutritional needs through breast feeding, but fathers can develop the same bond as mom by their involvement with child care. Simply put, it’s an essential component to growing good dads. And the amazing thing is that when dad is involved with his child’s care and well-being, mom is more likely to do well herself. It’s a bonus for the whole family.
Practical ways for dads to be involved.
Crash Course for Dads-to-Be (Bishop, 2016) offers these practical suggestions for dads wanting to connect with their baby before birth.
1. Listen to your child’s heartbeat. This is most easily done if you accompany mom to her doctor visits and hear with a stethoscope or ultrasound device.
2. See the baby’s sonogram and feel her kick.
3. Talk to your baby and give him a name. Some dads even sing or read to their baby in the womb, knowing a baby can hear, even in utero.
In Dad Skills: How to Be an Awesome Father and Impress All the Other Parents (Peterson, 2020) gives practical and detailed instructions for dads who want to bond with their child. Here are some of Peterson’s ideas:
1. Snuggle with your baby, your bare chest against his bare chest. According to Peterson, “Skin-to-sin contact is invaluable for reinforcing intimacy, and . . . can be a pretty special lead-up to a nap or just tremendously pleasant quiet downtime.”
2. Learn to swaddle your baby. You might think an infant would love the freedom of more space outside the womb, but, in fact, they often do better during the early weeks of life when they are tightly wrapped, otherwise known as swaddled. Do yourself, your child’s mom and your baby a huge favor by learning how to swaddle.
3. Learn to burp and bathe your baby. Because babies are born without neck strength, infants require special care and holding. Peterson explains and illustrates the shoulder hold, cradle hold, hello hold, football hold and lap hold. Learn to do them well and you’ll have the fundamental knowledge needed to perform other tasks like burping and bathing.
Let’s face it. You didn’t come into this world knowing how to be a father. Neither was your partner born knowing how to be a mother. You grow into these skills. You observe. You read. You ask others for help. You listen to people you trust and admire who’ve been there and can offer assistance.
At Good Dads, we know that great fathers grow into good dads along with their child. Over the next 12 months, in 2024, we are devoting our blogs and podcasts to helping dads on this journey to be the best dad they can be. We hope you will join us along the way.