by John Hoffman
I’ve often said that fathers have to play catch-up in early parenthood. Mothers get a biological and social head start at parenting and that’s just the way it is. Breastfeeding is one of the things that gives moms that head start. And breastfeeding is sometimes portrayed as an obstacle to fathers’ involvement with babies. I’ve never seen it that way. Breastfeeding is the way babies were designed to be fed, so it’s a reality. There are numerous challenges for fathers who want to get involved with babies. Breastfeeding is by no means the biggest one. But still, in some studies fathers have told researchers that the fact that they can’t breastfeed makes it harder to bond with their infant.
I understand how those guys felt. But if breastfeeding were really a major obstacle to early father involvement, we would logically expect that fathers of bottle fed babies would be more involved with babies than fathers in breastfeeding families. But actually, they aren’t.
A Canadian study found that fathers of breastfed babies scored just as high as fathers of bottle fed babies on scales of father involvement. But here’s what really interesting. The dads of breastfed babies were doing more different things with their babies. For dads of bottle fed babies, the main baby care activity was giving bottles. Meanwhile the guys with breastfed babies were, on average, doing more holding, comforting, bathing and massaging than the guys whose babies were bottle fed. (I’m sure there was a range of levels of involvement in both groups.)
I have to wonder if not being able to do the feeding nudged motivated fathers of breastfed babies to find other ways to be involved. But here’s the point that interests me. All of that other stuff – bathing, comforting, holding, massaging is really good for babies. People talk about how babies’ brains need stimulation to develop properly. Well, holding and comforting babies, giving them baths and changing diapers (and yes, feeding) is how baby brains get the stimulation they need. Unfortunately, the fathers in this study didn’t seem to understand that. Study leader Francine de Montigny, professor of nursing at the Université du Québec en Outaouais, says the fathers saw routine baby care and interaction as much less important than the breastfeeding their partners were doing.
“It was sad to hear some fathers say, “I can’t do the most important thing,” says de Montigny. “They didn’t seem to realize that the physical contact, including skin-to-skin contact, that takes place during routine baby care is very important for babies’ well-being and brain development.”
I think this study sends a big message to people who work with new parents. Help fathers understand that the interaction that takes place during routine baby care –touch time, eye contact and little verbal exchanges — makes a huge contribution to a baby’s brain development and well-being. And here’s the flipside. It’s good for the daddy brain too. Involvement in routine care helps fathers get to know their babies and build their fathering skills. When you’ve got a father and baby who feel comfortable together and enjoy being together, lots of good things can happen.
If you want to read in more detail about this study and other findings from Francine de Montigny’s Fatherhood and Infant Feeding Project read “Does Breastfeeding Really Push Dads to the Sidelines?”, on the website of the Father Involvement Research Alliance.