Daddy Duty

It’s usually mums who take the most time off when a newborn arrives – but dads should take parental leave, too, explains Tiffany Brown.

You often hear about the role physical closeness plays in establishing effective attachment between mother and baby in the early weeks of life, particularly through breastfeeding. What is lesser known is that fathers can also form strong bonds with their infants, encouraging secure attachment to both parents. The first days and weeks directly after birth provide the first opportunity for a new family to establish itself and get to know each other. The bonding that ensues, and the support that is shared between new parents, is a vital first step in your parenting journey.

No matter how much leave from work your baby’s father can manage to take after you give birth (the more the better!), remember, the process of paternal bonding begins as soon as you discover that you’re expecting. If possible, have him go with you to maternity appointments and share all the details of the pregnancy together. Talking about birth options and parenting styles, attending an antenatal class together, and talking about the movements you start to feel as pregnancy progresses can really help establish the paternal bond while your baby is in utero. Singing, talking, and touching mum’s belly are all ways babies begin to know and respond to their fathers. And by the time your baby arrives, dad will already feel a connection with his little bundle.

When fathers bond successfully with their infants, research shows the children grow to have a significant increase in physical and mental development. There is also improvement in academic, social, and psychological areas. Early bonding reduces stress for both father and baby, and they are less likely to become involved with crime, alcohol abuse, or drugs in the future.

Many dads feel a little passed over in the early days, when breastfeeding means mum tends to maintain a monopoly on the baby’s time. But there are lots of ways dads can help share the load, helping mum get a bit more rest and continuing to develop that important bond at the same time.

Changing nappies and dressing baby gives dads a great opportunity for plenty of cuddles and lots of eye contact. These activities are good for developing trust in your baby. Playing with baby and using a variety of facial expressions helps them learn, while holding or rocking baby to sleep are ideal ways to get involved.

It makes sense for fathers to take their turn or even take the lead in transporting their infant in a baby carrier. Men generally have broader shoulders and a stronger build to wear their babies in slings or packs, and keeping baby close to them this way further nurtures the father-child bond.

A recent study showed specialised baby massage for infants benefited both baby and dad. Babies enjoyed the calming effects of soothing massage, while massaging the baby proved a good stress reliever for the men. Now that could be just what you all need during those early days
of sleeplessness and tears!

Paternal bonding is more than just a concept. Research shows fathers experience various hormonal changes during the process of pregnancy and birth, similar to women. Towards the end of their partner’s pregnancy, for example, men experience a rise in cortisol. The so-called "stress hormone", cortisol helps a father to be more attached to and focused on his newborn.

Prolactin is also at work, encouraging bonding and attachment. Expectant fathers and new dads also experience a surge of vasopressin, the "monogamy hormone" which drives a dad's commitment levels and urge to protect his family.

Soon after becoming a father, a man’s testosterone level decreases by around 30%, calming him and making him biologically more likely to stick around and offer support.

Skin-to-skin contact is not only important for mother and baby after birth. It can influence baby’s relationship with dad too. Laying your baby on their father’s naked chest can be a lovely way to calm them down when unsettled and unable to be consoled otherwise. The hormone oxytocin goes to work, increasing during skin-to-skin contact and helping both parents’ nurturing instincts to kick in. This early bonding pays dividends down the track too, when your baby grows up to be a child who is as happy to be comforted by dad as they are by mum when upset.

Taking the opportunity to bond with their newborn infant means fathers can have a strong influence on the future contentment of the family. Babies gain great benefits from the establishment of early bonds with their fathers.

How much parental leave can dads take?

The legal entitlement to parental leave for Kiwi dads is up to two weeks, depending on employment status prior to the birth. However, dads can take more when they apply to share part of their partner’s leave entitlement.

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