Dads, like mums, can have deep and lasting effects on how their child’s brain, emotions and body develop. However, up until recently, research into parenting and its impacts on children’s development has focused mainly on the mother.
Fathers are present in their children’s lives more than ever before. 96% of fathers attend their child’s birth in the UK and research from across the Western world shows that they are spending more time with their children compared to 20-30 years ago. This is due to a range of reasons, including more women going to work and attitudes to fatherhood changing – it is now much more acceptable (and desirable) for dads to be hands on with caring for their children.
Fathers often play a different role to mothers, and one that is just as important. For example, fathers spend more of the time they are with their children playing, and the play itself is also quite different! Dads tend to play in a more physical way (rough and tumble!), which helps encourage the child to open up and start exploring the outside world.
What is also less talked about is that new fathers can experience challenges throughout their partner’s pregnancy and in the first few years of their child’s life. Did you know that 10% of new fathers report experiencing mental health difficulties? For example, dads might suffer from high levels of anxiety about their new roles and responsibilities, their relationship with their partner, or their relationships with the new baby.
These challenges are not only hard for fathers to manage, they can also impact on babies too. Dads might, for example, become more withdrawn and less engaged with their babies, which can harm the development of their bond. This can in turn put their children at greater risk of having problems in their cognitive, behavioural, social and emotional development compared to other children.
Despite all that is known about how important dads are to child development and the risks of them experiencing mental health difficulties, there is very little support for new fathers out there. Gender inequality still exists in early parenthood, and services often still forget to think about the wider family. As practitioners, we may also hold our own assumptions about fathers which can affect how we view or treat them. All these things can lead to dads falling through the gaps, with many saying they feel marginalised or isolated as new parents.
We need to do all we can to support dads at this crucial time and encourage positive, nurturing interactions between them and their children.
What can you do to support the fathers of the children you work with?
Top 10 tips!
- Remember and use dads’ names - it sounds obvious, but this can really help dads feel included and important in their child’s care.
- Encourage and acknowledge dads' involvement in caring for their baby or young child. Take time to have conversations with dads about how they think their children are doing, just like you would with mums.
- Ask dads how they are getting on and coping with fatherhood – what has surprised them? What has been easier/more difficult than they had expected? Often we save these questions for mums.
- Learn more about the challenges and mental health difficulties dads’ experience in pregnancy and parenthood and encourage mums and dads to listen to and support each other.
- Take some time to think about your own feelings and assumptions about fathers – how does this affect the way you work with them? Try out the following exercise:
- Ensure your workspaces and materials are dad friendly – would dads feel welcome? Are men shown in a positive way in posters/materials?
- Ensure dads are invited to all meetings about their child, even if you think they will not be able to attend.
- Encourage dads to watch and notice their baby’s and child’s actions and behaviours. Think with them about those behaviours might mean and what their baby may need from them.
- Encourage dads to have joyful, engaging interactions with their baby/child. You could suggest they have a regular time in the day or week to sing songs together or share a picture book together.
- Encourage dads to get help if they are struggling – GPs, midwives and health visitors can help, and can signpost dads to support available in their local area. Click on the link to read more about our service for fathers, Mind the Dad.
Join our network for early years practitioners!
For more tips and resources, join Early Years in Mind a free online network for early years practitioners developed by mental health experts at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. It shares practical and clinical knowledge on supporting the mental health of babies, young children and their families.
Eloise Stevens is an Early Years Therapist and Trainer at the Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families. She is leading on the development and delivery of a new service called Mind the Dad for fathers experiencing mental health difficulties in the perinatal period. Mind the Dad provides evidence-based parenting programmes specifically for fathers who are struggling with the transition to fatherhood.