Dad and the newborn

"While men and women become parents at the same time, they do not necessarily become parents in the same way." - William J. Watson [1]

Fatherhood can be a very rewarding experience, but it can be rough going. That is doubly true during the first days and weeks of fatherhood: you have all just been through labour. You will need to recover and get used to this new model of family you have just created. [2]  You will all be going through some intense weeks of physical and emotional changes and adjustments. Becoming a father changes your outlook on life, your family, and even your brain structure. [3] [4]

Tip 1: Babies rarely follow the plans you set out for them. Prepare for surprises.

Before birth

Preparations for the arrival of your new family member can start months before your baby's birth. Even though you are not the one who is pregnant, as a father-to-be, there are many things you can do during pregnancy, including:

  • Going to medical appointments and prenatal classes with your partner;
  • Learning about pregnancy and birth;
  • Making healthy choices, and;
  • Learning about postpartum depression.

For your partner, having you take an active role in preparing for the event can reduce the natural anxiety that comes with pregnancy and birth.

Men are changed by their first child. It is natural that an expectant father feels concerned, anxious or confused at this stage. Help and advice are available for new fathers, both from experienced friends and family, as well as from professional sources.

Safety preparations

Many parents will want to baby-proof their homes before the birth, or shortly after to ensure a safe environment for their newborn. Make sure you get around to it by the time they start crawling, which is around six months. Fitting a baby car seat, however, should be a priority several months before your baby is due, if you are planning to drive them anywhere. Remember that babies can and do arrive prematurely.

Parenting styles

New parents can find - often to their surprise - that their views on parenting are different from their partner's. This can lead to tension between the two of you. It is better if you discuss your parenting styles and expectations before the baby is born.

That said, the first period of parenthood is guaranteed to surprise you, however well you prepare. Many parents find that their well-devised notions of parenting must undergo some serious rethinking once applied to an actual baby.

Baby's room

While some parents prepare a nursery for their baby, many others do not, either due to lack of space or because they have decided to co-sleep.

Whatever arrangement you decide on, bear in mind that your newborn's sleeping area should be safe and comfortable for them, and comfortable for you and your partner to spend time in.

Tip 2: A newborn baby's eyesight is pretty bad in the first few weeks. They won't even recognise your faces, so do not expect them to appreciate the effort you put into decorating the nursery. Give it time.

Supporting your partner

During labour and birth

In many historical periods, and in many cultures today, labour and birth are considered 'women's business' in which the expectant father has no real role. In Western society this model has gradually been replaced in the past decades; most fathers are now present and active in the delivery room. [5] [6]

As the father, you are the only one not assigned a fixed role. You can therefore be the pillar of support for your partner: in charge of managing relations and expectations with the medical staff; the 'communications hub' relaying news and updates to the outside world; 'Mr Admin' dealing with the paperwork, and so on. It is up to you and your partner to decide what is best for you all.

Healing and resting

Your partner has been through a tough physical experience and now needs to devote a lot of effort to caring for your newborn and recuperating. Her body is recovering and returning to its pre-pregnant state. In many cultures, during the first 30-40 days after birth, the mother rests and cares for the baby, while being cared for by relatives.

Be there for your partner as much as your circumstances allow. Any support she gets now will help her recover faster. If your partner has had a caesarean section, or required stitching, it is particularly important that she get some healing time.

Nutrition is important for every member of your family at this time. Take care to have good, nutritious food available for your partner and yourself. Ease of preparation is important, but try to avoid 'fast' food. 

Breastfeeding

Breastfeeding is the recommended form of feeding for a baby. Breastmilk provides optimal nutrition and protects your newborn from disease. The evidence shows that breastfed babies enjoy better health outcomes than babies who are fed with alternative foodstuffs, such as formula.

Breastfeeding is a natural act, practised for over 200 million years by all mammals. However, it is also a learned skill. Problems with breastfeeding are common. Your support can mean a lot to a successful breastfeeding process, if that is the path you choose to follow. Research shows that your attitude toward breastfeeding is crucial to your partner's decision. [7]

Here are some things to keep in mind:

  • You can prepare yourself for breastfeeding by learning about the topic, planning any lifestyle changes you choose to make and arranging support and guidance. These steps could save you time and effort in the intense time just after birth;
  • Different people can have very different expectations about breastfeeding. Discuss breastfeeding with your partner beforehand, so you can both be on the same page;
  • Many new dads have never seen a woman breastfeeding before. This new thing your partner's breasts do can take some getting used to, and;
  • Above all else, remember that it is ultimately your partner's decision whether and how to breastfeed.

Dad headspace

Priorities

New fatherhood affects nearly every aspect of your life, and your priorities will change. [5] At first it might seem intimidating - some fathers feel as if they 'no longer have a life of their own'. In time, however, you will find that you can rearrange your life to include a healthy mix of work, family, social life and recreation. You might not be able to bring your two-week old daughter to your weekly pickup basketball game, but in two years' time she will happily help you tune up your motorbike.

Third wheel

The mother-newborn relationship can be quite an intense one, especially during the first days and weeks. New mothers can become focused on their newborn to the exclusion of most other things. A new dad can sometimes start feeling as if he has become the 'third wheel', left out and unsure of his place in the family unit. Accept this as a natural phase. With care and patience, you will find your place.

Taking care of yourself

Although the spotlight is on mum and baby, dads need upkeep, too. Eating, sleeping and getting exercise are important to keep you functioning throughout this period. This is often easier said than done, but is better than ploughing on until you crash. Your family needs you in good shape.

Your mental health is equally important. Becoming a dad is a thrilling experience, but it can have its darker sides. Postpartum depression can hit dads, too. Do not shy away from seeking help.

Caring for your newborn

Many new fathers have never spent time with an infant before, and some are hesitant at first to engage with this fragile, unfamiliar creature. This is a natural reaction, but will quickly disappear once you spend a few hours carrying your newborn around. Remember these simple guidelines for the safety of a newborn baby and you will do fine:

  • Keep their head and neck well supported when you hold them;
  • Do not let anything cover their face or wrap around their neck;
  • Do not let their fingers tangle inside sleeves, and;
  • Pretending to not understand how nappies work is a short-term strategy. Eventually, you will be found out.

Babies - even very small ones - can be surprisingly good at letting you know what they need, want or feel, through facial expression and body language. The more time you spend with your baby, the easier it will become for you to 'read' their cues. [4]

Bonding with your newborn

For new dads, bonding to their newborn can take time: your newborn will want to spend their first weeks as close to mum as possible. This is not a judgement on your personal qualities or your abilities as a dad. Accept this natural newborn instinct, but seek opportunities to take your baby off mum's hands. This will let her rest, and allow yourself and the baby time to get to know each other on your own.  

At first, this time will probably involve a fair amount of crying. Do not be discouraged. Physical contact (especially skin-to-skin) has a calming effect on both of you, and will encourage your child to feel safe and comfortable with you.

Tip 3: Newborns smell amazing. Sniff shamelessly. Soak it up while you can. In a few weeks they will start smelling merely good, and further on down the line they will be teenagers. 

Things you can do with your newborn:

  • Baths;
  • Walks;
  • Hold your baby or rock it gently in your arms, and;
  • Play, making faces and noises.

These are some of the tried-and-true activities. Your newborn has never heard of them, and will accept anything else you think up as perfectly natural.

Talking to your baby

Talking to babies helps their brains develop language and communication skills. Do not hold back. Explain what you are doing, or where you are both going, or how the stock market is doing these days - anything that's on your mind. Your baby has never heard any of this before, and will be highly appreciative.

Parents the world over find themselves talking to their babies in high-pitched, repetitive, sing-song 'baby talk' (sometimes known as 'parentese'). It may not be the most manly-sounding speech, but babies prefer it to 'adult'-type speech.

Sing to your baby. Do not worry about your musical abilities. The classic kiddie songs work well for babies, but do not be afraid to throw in your personal favourites.

Family and friends

Grandparents, in-laws, uncles, aunts, and friends can be excellent sources of support and help, but can also become a source of stress on your family unit. As a dad, you are well-placed to be the gatekeeper, setting visiting hours and leaving enough time for your household to rest and adjust to your new life.

Many well-meaning people will have differing ideas about parenting. Their advice, experience and information can be a big help, but this can also go too far. It is up to you to decide how much influence and involvement you allow your family and friends in raising your baby.

Tip 4: To avoid a flood of unsolicited baby stuff, ask visitors to bring plenty of home-cooked food instead. Repeat visitors can be set to doing chores around the house.

 "My Father taught me how to be a man - and not by instilling in me a sense of machismo or an agenda of dominance. He taught me that a real man doesn't take, he gives; he doesn't use force, he uses logic; doesn't play the role of trouble-maker, but rather, trouble-shooter; and most importantly, a real man is defined by what's in his heart, not his pants." - Kevin Smith [8]

Prenatal

Before the birth of a baby.

Anxiety

A feeling of tension, nervousness and dread about future events. It can trigger physical symptoms such as a rapid pulse or breathing difficulties.

Labour

Signals the end of a pregnancy and the process of giving birth to a baby from the uterus to the outside world.

1. Watson, W.J., Watson, L., Wetzel, W., et al. (1995) Transition to parenthood. What about fathers? Canadian Family Physician 41:807–812.

2. Premberg, Å., Hellström, A.-L. and Berg, M. (2008) Experiences of the first year as father. Scandinavian Journal of Caring Sciences 22:56–63.

3. Kim, P., Rigo, P., Mayes, L.C., et al. (2014) Neural plasticity in fathers of human infants. Social Neuroscience 9:522–535.

4. Abraham, E., Hendler, T., Shapira-Lichter, I., et al. (2014) Father’s brain is sensitive to childcare experiences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111:9792–9797.

5. James Condon. (2006) What about dad? Psychosocial and mental health issues for new fathers. Australian Family Physician 36.

6. Schachman, K.A. (2010) Online fathering: the experience of first-time fatherhood in combat-deployed troops. Nursing Research 59:11–17.

7. Scott, J.A., Landers, M.C., Hughes, R.M., et al. (2001) Factors associated with breastfeeding at discharge and duration of breastfeeding. Journal of Paediatrics and Child Health 37:254–261.

5. James Condon. (2006) What about dad? Psychosocial and mental health issues for new fathers. Australian Family Physician 36.

4. Abraham, E., Hendler, T., Shapira-Lichter, I., et al. (2014) Father’s brain is sensitive to childcare experiences. Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America 111:9792–9797.

8. Smith, K. (2007) My boring ass life: the uncomfortably candid diary of kevin smith. Titan Books.