When dad and baby bond early and strongly there are benefits for everyone concerned. That’s the unsurprising conclusion of a new Australian study, but the research – published in Infant Mental Health Journal – takes our knowledge of father-baby bonding in a new direction. It suggests that forging a good bond early in the child’s life increases the wellbeing of the whole family.
The study found that, if the dad and baby bond was strong, family functioning was also high. The reverse was also true. If fathers failed to bond strongly with their child, the family was more likely to experience problems.
“The health of a family is closely related to how the father relates to the child,” said Dr Dawson Cooke, one of the researchers. “It’s tragic we don’t recognise the importance of fathers more.”
Baby-father bonding is key
The research adds to a growing body of evidence on just how essential father-child bonding is, especially in the earliest part of a child’s life.
That might come as little surprise to the DaddiLife community, but the revelation can still be something of a shock to the wider public. As a society, we have long been conditioned to think of the mother-baby bond as a vital ingredient in family functioning and child development, and its father-baby equivalent as something of a nice but optional extra.
That view can longer be sustained. The new research adds to a study that was released in May, conducted by researchers from Imperial College London, King’s College London and Oxford University.
It looked at how fathers interacted with their babies at three months of age and found that, more than 20 months later, children with the most engaged and interactive fathers performed better in cognitive tests. A strong dad and baby bond actually accelerated mental development in some areas.
According to Professor Paul Ramchandani, who led the research, the study has far reaching implications. “Even as early as three months, these father-child interactions can positively predict cognitive development almost two years later, so there’s something probably quite meaningful for later development, and that really hasn’t been shown much before,” he says.
“The clear message for new fathers here is to get stuck in and play with your baby. Even when they’re really young playing and interacting with them can have a positive effect.”
Dad and baby bond: good for everyone
As every dad knows, to play with your baby is to bond with him. As new fathers bond more with their children, and relax into their new role, so the benefits accumulate. Another part of the same research found that children interacting with sensitive, calm and less anxious fathers during a book session at the age of two showed better cognitive development, “including attention, problem-solving, language and social skills.”
Bonding early and bonding well with our children doesn’t just benefit children – it reaps rewards for dads too. One study found that working dads who spent more time with their children had greater levels of job satisfaction than those who didn’t.
What is becoming increasingly clear is that a strong dad-baby bond is vital, to the health, happiness and development of baby, dad and the family more generally. So the questions is, how can dads best bond with our new born infants…
Five tips for better dad and baby bonding
We asked top child psychologist Tamara Licht Musso for her advice on bonding with your baby.
1. For daddies to be, an excellent way of starting a positive bond with your child is by you being an active part of your partner’s pregnancy and by being present at the birth. Go with your partner to the antenatal checkups and classes. Being present at your child’s birth will help you release oxytocin (“the love hormone”), strengthening the bond with your newborn by stimulating the desire to care for your child. Not only mummies release oxytocin so dare to be there, by your partner’s side, from the beginning.
2. Try to identify your child’s emotions from a young age and respond to them assertively. By responding to your child’s emotions with care and at the right time, you are helping them feel safe and cared, thus reinforcing the dad and baby bonding. A child who feels safe is more likely to go to you when facing adversity. A child who feels safe is also more likely to explore the world in a fearless manner and this is vital for their growth.
3. Share play-time. Another way of reinforcing the dad-bond with your child is by having quality time with them. For a child, play is the most natural way of learning; thus, engaging in active play with your child may allow you to witness their growth while also being part of it.
4. Physical contact. It’s well known that skin to skin contact between mother and baby enhances positive bonding. However, daddies too can participate in skin to skin contact with their babies. As your child grows, keep that physical contact by hugging or cuddling your child through good and bad times. For example, if your child falls down, pick them up in your arms and calm them down or – if they accomplish a milestone like walking – hold them and hug them.
5) Look after yourself. If you are feeling physically or mentally unwell, chances are you will find it difficult to be part of your child’s growth. Take time to check in with yourself and dare to ask for help if you are personally struggling.
Keep that dad and baby bond strong – it matters for the whole family!