UA Matters: Ways to Help Fathers Bond with Baby
This is the second in a series of three UA Matters posts that focuses on the importance of parent-infant attachment bonds, as well as specific ways fathers can develop a stronger bond with baby.
A father is protector, teacher, moral leader, problem-solver and encourager for his child. There are many commonalities between a mother’s influence and a father’s influence on a child, but there also are some important and unique differences.
Specifically, the mother’s main role with an infant is to nurture, comfort and care, whereas the father’s main role “… is to be a trusted companion or guide in the child’s exploration of the world” (Condon et al., 2013).
Good fathering requires selfless commitment to caring for a baby and to guiding that child as she moves through early childhood, later childhood, adolescence and adulthood.
It involves making great sacrifices in time, money, personal freedom and sometimes even in one’s career. What motivates a man to make these sacrifices? The answer lies in his attachment bond to his infant.
How can a father bond with his baby? Infants develop stronger bonds to fathers who are responsive and sensitive to the baby’s needs and who engage them in joyful interactions.
The University of Alabama’s Dr. Mary Elizabeth Curtner-Smith offers some suggested activities that promote bonding.
- Support the baby’s mother during pregnancy.
- Engage in conversations in which you imagine what the baby will be like and how the two of you will care for the baby.
- Attend prenatal doctor visits.
- Attend the birth of the baby and be an active participant in coaching the mother through labor and delivery. Fathers who are active participants in the labor and delivery of the baby are more involved with the baby during the newborn period.
- Have a gazing contest. Cuddle and hold the baby close to your chest so that the baby is facing up and able to look into your eyes. Hold the baby this way when bottle feeding.
- Make time for skin-to-skin contact. Take off your shirt, lie on the floor and place the baby on your chest. A baby loves to hear her daddy’s heartbeat, and she loves to feel the rise and fall of daddy’s chest as he breathes.
- Give baby a massage by using some lotion to gently rub her legs, belly, arms, head and ears.
- Make silly faces by making exaggerated smiles at her and by cooing and making silly noises. As baby gets older, you can play peekaboo.
- Have a daddy dance party. Babies love music. Turn on the music and sway while holding the baby. Not only is this pleasurable for the baby, but it helps teach her rhythm.
- Take baby for a walk by putting him in an infant sling or carrier that allows you to “wear” your baby. Make sure you use sunscreen on the baby and yourself.
- Set aside time every day to play with your baby. Make silly faces, bounce baby gently on your knee, sway baby to music, or, when she is older, swing her on your leg. This kind of play is critical to father-infant bonding because it is pleasurable to babies. When babies experience pleasure, they release endorphins, a brain chemical that promotes growth in the area of the brain responsible for emotions. Likewise, dads who experience pleasure while interacting with their baby also release endorphins.
- Do diaper duty. It may be smelly, but it is a great opportunity to talk and get silly while cleaning up the baby.
- Constantly talk to your baby. If you do not know what to say, simply vocalize a running narrative of what you are doing. For example you can say, “I’m going to pick you up and now we are walking down the hall to your room. Okie dokey, now we are going to change that smelly, welly diaper. Oh look, I am reaching for a diaper now. …” A baby does not understand what you are saying, but your words and the sound of your voice are melody to his ears.
- Sing to your baby. Make up a song that includes your baby’s name. “Old MacLauren had a Farm …”
- Give baby butterfly kisses with your eyelashes. Blow gentle raspberries on her tummy.
- Let baby orient to fun sounds. Shake a rattle near her, squeeze a squeaky toy, and watch him turn his head toward the sound.
- Play finger nursery rhymes with the baby.
- Read board books to your baby. It’s never too early to start reading! They love to hear your voice and the rhythm of the words.
- Share pictures with your baby. She will love to scan the pictures of faces that become familiar.
- Take on bath time. Babies love water and water play. Have bath toys available like sponges and rubber ducks. A word of caution, though. Make sure that the water temperature is not too hot, and never turn your back on the baby when he is in the tub.
- Be part of baby’s bedtime routine. Take on bath time or read to baby before putting him to sleep.
Curtner-Smith is an associate professor in UA’s College of Human Environmental Sciences’ department of human development and family studies.
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