The Daddy Factor: How Fathers Support Development

Dads matter—a lot.

The relationship between father and child has a deep impact on a child’s overall and long-term healthy development.

School and Career Success

Children whose fathers are involved in their daily care such as feeding, bathing and playing together, tend to be more confident; and, as they grow older, enjoy stronger social connections with peers. Research shows secure attachments have positive benefits that last into adulthood. Children who are securely attached do better academically; they are also more sociable and well-liked throughout early childhood as compared to children who do not have secure attachments.

Fathers who care for, nurture, and play with their babies raise children with higher IQs and with better language and cognitive skills. The more time fathers spend in enriching, stimulating play with their child—such as playing pretend or sharing stories—the better the child’s math and reading scores are at 10 and 11 years old.

Healthy Risk-Taking

The rough-and-tumble kind of play that fathers engage in with young children helps regulate their feelings and behavior. It teaches children how to deal with aggressive impulses and physical contact in socially acceptable ways. While mothers are more likely to form secure attachments by comforting their children when they are distressed, fathers are more likely to provide security in the context of the controlled excitement of play or discipline. This helps children learn where the boundaries of safety and risk-taking exist in the world—a very important skill that builds self-regulation and can prevent problems with aggression and violence later on.

Fathers push children beyond their comfort zone—in the best ways. Dads, typically more than moms, encourage their children to take calculated risks: trying the deep end of the pool, talking to someone new, or finding ways to overcome obstacles.

Managing Emotions

Children with involved fathers tend to be more patient; and, when they are older, they can handle the stresses and frustrations associated with schooling more easily than children with less involved fathers. Children of involved fathers are less likely to get in trouble at home, in school, and in the neighborhood, and they are less likely to experience depression.

When fathers are found to be emotionally and physically remote from their infants at 3 months and again at 12 months of age, by the time they enter preschool the children were found to be more aggressive with their peers. This was particularly true for boys and occurred independently from how the mothers behaved with their infants.

Fathers who are actively involved in their babies’ lives tend to experience less conflict with their wives. This not only benefits children; it strengthens the parenting relationship which also has long-term benefits for children.

The Benefit is Mutual

Fatherhood is life-changing, for dads and for babies. As tiring as being a Dad is at times, all those moments add up to a lifetime of love and connection.

Cues for Caregiving

We know moms’ hormone levels change during pregnancy. So do Dads’! Scientists say both parents experience a rise in the hormone prolactin around the time of a baby’s birth. Prolactin promotes child-caring behaviors in both parents.

The Love Hormone

Here’s something to smile about: bonding time with your baby activates the circuits in your brain that are also involved in falling in love. When a dad has skin-to-skin contact with his baby, he releases oxytocin (sometimes knowns as the love hormone). Babies’ oxytocin levels rise, too. (Skin-to-skin contact between moms and babies has the same effect.)

Brain Rewards

MRI images provide more evidence that men’s priorities change when they have kids. Brain scans of fathers and non-fathers showed that the reward-sensing region of dad’s brains lit up when they saw pictures of toddlers. Not so in the non-dads. Another study found that in the first four months of parenting, fathers showed increases in parts of the brain involved in parental motivation, including the hypothalamus and amygdala, among others.

Getting Involved: Advice for Fathers

Children with dads who are involved in their upbringing tend to do better socially, emotionally, and academically than kids with uninvolved fathers. Research also shows kids with involved dads tend to be more confident.

Talk, read, and sing to your baby-to-be. 

Babies can hear during the second trimester of pregnancy, and recognize voices in the third trimester—including yours!

Attend doctor’s visits as much as you can.

During Ob/Gyn checkups, you will be able to see your baby’s growth and development—including his heartbeat. These opportunities to track your baby’s development help you both begin to feel connected to your little one even before his birth day.

Try a class for expectant parents.

Classes will help you prep for parenting (diaper changing, feeding, keeping baby healthy and safe), as well as cover strategies for how to co-parent with Mom.

Support healthy habits.

Your encouragement helps mom eat the right foods and avoid smoking and drinking during pregnancy. For example, research shows that your support makes it easier for Mom to begin and continue breastfeeding.

Be there for labor and delivery. 

Both moms and dads naturally worry about the labor and delivery process. Some dads say they worry about doing the wrong thing in the delivery room, seeing their partner in pain, or being left out of important decisions. But they show up in big numbers and most are glad that they did. Moms report that having their partners in the delivery room reduces their anxiety and pain. And many dads find that meeting their baby right after birth is an experience that changes them forever—and helps them bond with their babies from those first seconds.

Dads who play an active role during pregnancy lower moms’ stress levels. And lower stress means a healthier environment for your growing baby.

Continue the conversation.

You’ve been talking, reading, and singing to your baby for months. Now enjoy seeing her responses for the first time!

Figure out how to share responsibility for the baby.

New dads can do almost everything new moms can do: Change diapers, give baths, share stories, and take your turn walking and soothing when the baby is crying. If your partner is breastfeeding, you can participate by bringing the baby to her, or burping him when he’s done. Sharing these responsibilities right from the start gives you a chance to get to know your baby and builds a strong foundation for your relationship with him.

Pay attention to your baby’s cues.

Over time, babies develop their own ways of telling you want they need—through a particular cry, look, or movement. By spending time caring for and playing with your baby, you’ll start to decode her cues.

Help us spread the message that positive parenting matters.

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