First Things First: Untold benefits for families when dads take parental leave

First Things First: Untold benefits for families when dads take parental leave

June 21st, 2019 by Julie Baumgardner in Life Entertainment
Julie Baumgardner

Julie Baumgardner

Photo by Contributed Photo /Times Free Press.

In recent months there have been several news stories about groups of women who work together becoming pregnant at the same time. After hearing this news, conversations usually surround the fact that the department will have a hard time when these women all take maternity leave.

On the other hand, another story hit the airwaves about seven firefighters at the same fire station in Oklahoma. Their wives became pregnant around the same time, but no one really commented about how the station would operate while these dads took time off to be with their newborn babies.

While moms are essential when it comes to caregiving for infants, many people often overlook or don't discuss the benefits to mom and child when the father is more involved in the caregiving process.

Recently published articles from the Association of Women's Health, Obstetric and Neonatal Nurses (AWHONN) highlight the fact that father-infant bonding is just as important as mother-infant bonding. In fact, when fathers delay bonding with their newborns, it can alter the long-term course of paternal involvement as the infant progresses throughout childhood and adolescence and increase the risk of paternal postpartum depression.

According to the Journal of Obstetric, Gynecologic & Neonatal Nursing, "fathers reported that they didn't start to experience fatherhood until birth." Mothers, however, reported that they started to experience motherhood as soon they discovered they were pregnant. Although most fathers expect to bond emotionally and immediately with their newborns, some fathers still did not feel bonded to their infants as long as six weeks to two months after birth.

Successful father-infant bonding during the immediate postpartum period offers several benefits for the infant: It reduces cognitive delay, promotes weight gain in preterm infants and improves breastfeeding rates. Additionally, research shows that when the father frequently visits their prematurely born child in the hospital, babies are more likely to get out of the hospital sooner, develop their brains better and have more psychomotor functioning. The more the father can be there, the better the child tends to improve.

A study by Kyle Pruett at Yale University showed that even for children born full-term, the importance of father involvement is enormous. A father breathing on the child when it is first born helps the bonding process to occur and changes the dad's brain, too. The sooner the father gets involved with the child, neurons in the male brain begin to develop and connect with each other — mimicking the mother instinct. When fathers are involved, their oxytocin levels go up and testosterone levels go down, and Dad is satisfied from the emotional intimacy with his child. Mother and child benefit from that, too.

"Father-infant bonding is an issue that is not discussed enough and is just as important as mother-infant bonding during the immediate postpartum period," said AWHONN's chief executive officer, Lynn Erdman. "It is vitally important for a father to interact and bond with his newborn to help the infant's development and to reduce the risk of paternal postpartum depression."

Dads can bond with their unborn children by talking, singing or reading to them in the womb. AWHONN offers these tips to help dads continue the bonding process after the baby arrives:

* Jump right in. Don't be afraid to begin immediately caring for and loving your baby. The more you hold your baby, the more comfortable and natural it will feel.

* Take a night shift. Once mom is breastfeeding well, she may want to let you give the baby a nighttime meal. This way she can get more sleep and you will have the opportunity to bond with your newborn.

* Read your newborn a book. Your newborn will enjoy the rhythm and pace of your voice while you read a book. In these early months, it's not about what you're reading; it's about reading itself.

* Initiate the bath. Bathing your newborn will enhance bonding and provide a multisensory learning experience.

* Create a bedtime ritual. Infants will learn to depend on the consistency and predictability of a nighttime routine.

The research is solid that fathers profoundly impact the lives of their children, even as infants. While you may be hesitant to take time off from work to be with your newborn because you think bonding with Mom is more important for the baby, you might want to think again. This is actually a one-time opportunity to give your child a gift money can't buy: time with you and more benefits for your family than you realize.

Julie Baumgardner is president and CEO of family advocacy nonprofit First Things First. Email her at julieb@firstthings.org.