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David Baxter PhD

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Baby Bonding--Dads and Their Newborns
By Cara J. Stevens

Dad can feel left out when Baby is born, but there are lots of ways he can get involved in the caregiving process.

For an expectant parent, life is full of potentials and possibilities. Future dads and moms imagine themselves as parents, molding and shaping a young life. Often, that rush of anticipation goes through a complete transformation when new parents come face to face with a tiny, unfamiliar person. The reality doesn't just set in - it hits with full force for moms and dads alike.

"About half of all parents, male and female, don't have any particular fond feelings for their babies when they're born," says Dr. Armin Brock, author of The New Father: A Dad's Guide to the First Year (Abbeville Press, 1997). "We're constantly fed the idea that we fall in love with our babies immediately, and most people don't."

But somehow, it seems that new mothers take to motherhood much more naturally than new dads to fatherhood. "The difference often begins with the level of expectations," says Dr. Brock. "If you ask an expectant mother to describe herself with a baby, she can do that with no problem - she'll often describe bathing, feeding or dressing the newborn. If you ask an expectant father, he will describe himself in more of a parenting role - taking walks on the beach or playing catch."

When dads are faced with the reality of the baby and don't get any kind of a response or recognition when the baby is born, they often feel rejected. "Expectant fathers are surprised when you tell them that the first couple of months the baby is kind of a blob," says Dr. Ron Klinger, founder of the Center for Successful Fathering and author of the upcoming book, Preparing for Successful Fathering. "You get a baby who just needs to eat and sleep and that's essentially it."

Feeling Left Out
Once the much-awaited baby arrives, the breathless anticipation is often replaced with questions: Who is this person? Who will it become? What is my role in its development? Why does it have to smell so funny and cry so loudly?

Many efforts at soothing or attending to your little one are met with little response. Fortunately for moms, the process of carrying, giving birth to and in many cases feeding the baby from their own body creates a natural, biochemical bond before the baby is even born. The unfortunate flip side of that is that it's all too easy for dads to feel left out.

Some fathers respond to this lack of meaningful exchange by simply removing themselves from the picture, wrongfully assuming that this is the mom's time to take care of the child, and they'll jump in and pick up once the baby starts to notice the world outside the mother/child bond.

The problem fathers face is that while bonding is a reciprocal process, it has to start somewhere. In this case, the dad who puts himself into the equation early on, even when the baby shows little or no recognition, has a big head start on forging a parent-child bond once the child is capable of noticing the world around him.

Overcoming the Obstacles
The first step in feeling involved is thinking of yourself as a parent before the baby even arrives. "One way a dad can prepare for the birth of a child is to participate in all the medical checkups and birthing classes that come before the birth of the child," says Dr. Klinger. "Many mothers have told us that they came to doubt the sincerity of the new father's commitment to parenting because they took little interest in the process of pregnancy."

Once the baby arrives, it's up to the dad to roll up his sleeves and get involved. "He cannot wait for an invitation," says Dr. Klinger. "Researchers tell us that new parents of a first baby are equally incompetent at the time of the child's birth. By the end of the first year, moms typically have outdistanced new dads in terms of their care-giving skills and self-confidence primarily because they spend more solo time with the baby. So dads have got to spend solo time with the baby to earn the trust of the baby and self-confidence themselves."

Moms also play an important role in helping fathers get involved. "Just as men help their wives breastfeed longer and more successfully, women play a large part in helping fathers," says Dr. Brock.

New mothers often see the biochemical bond of pregnancy as an obligation to fulfill all of Baby's needs after birth as well. The fact is, however, that when there are two parents, there are twice as many hands and twice as many ways to cater to Baby's needs. Moms need to learn that it's OK to take a step back, and it's totally OK to let dad take over, even if he does things in a completely different way.

"My advice to moms is don't take the crying baby away because you feel you know how to do it better," says Dr. Brock. "Women don't see that when they do something like that they are making their own motherhood role more difficult than it has to be, because dad will not have the skills he needs to do it, and then she won't leave the baby with him. It becomes a cycle that is hard to get out of."

Capitalize on the Differences
"The child-to-mother bonding process is predicated on the predictable, soothing and comforting response by the mother to the child's outcry of need," says Dr. Klinger. "More than 80 percent of the mother's interactions with her child are triggered by infant crying."

Dads, on the other hand, have completely different interactions with their children. According to Dr. Klinger, dads have been found to be "more spontaneous, agitating, rougher and more playful" than moms. The fact is that babies not only need to be comforted, they also need to be engaged and stimulated, and this role is a perfect one for a dad looking to get involved.

By the end of the baby's second month, Baby is not only responding to his environment, he is also seeking out stimulus, and this is where the active dad comes in. "The key element in father-child bonding is physical, active play!" says Dr. Klinger. "The majority of father-child interactions are not triggered by the child's need state, but because Dad just wants to enjoy his child's laughter."

On-the-Job Training
While there are classes and licenses for just about everything these days, it doesn't take much to become a parent. Becoming an active, involved and loving parent does take a lot of work, but according to satisfied parents throughout history and around the world, it can be the most rewarding role you will ever play.

Reading articles, asking questions and taking classes are a great starting point for initiating the bonding process, but the biggest step you can take is to just do it. "The most important thing is to not be afraid of making mistakes," says Dr. Brock. "Parenting is an on-the-job skill kind of thing, and fortunately babies are very forgiving."

Father-Newborn Bonding Activities
  • Take Baby for a walk in a front carrier around the house, around the store or around the block.
  • Read to Baby.
  • Take a nap together, letting Baby fall asleep on your chest.
  • Give Baby a bath.
  • Feed Baby, or support mom while she's breastfeeding.
  • Dress and diaper Baby ?€“ even pick out Baby's clothes for the day.
More articles on dads and newborns
She Won't Break: New Dads With Newborn Fears
Postpartum Dad Series
What the Parenting Books Don't Tell You: 12 Tips for New Dads
Emotional Connections: Start the Bonding Process at Day One
Bonding Without Breasts: Understanding Dad's Role in the Nursing Relationship
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