Wishing a very happy fathers’ day this Sunday to all the grandfathers, experienced fathers, new dads and expecting ones too. Becoming a father is a very unique experience, one that I cherish as the most profound, turning-point moment in my life.
When a baby enters a family unit, there’s so much focus on the baby and on the mother, especially if the mother is breastfeeding, as is most often the case. This makes perfect sense – the baby is the new arrival, requiring round-the-clock care and attention, and the mother is the one recovering from pregnancy and delivery, while being the source of nutrition at the same time.
But I’d like to shift the paradigm a little, and put the spotlight onto fathers,we play a significantly greater role than many think – andwe might just be the key to having a perfectly well settled baby and entire family unit.
My own story:
Personally, I was excited to become a father, after watching my two older brothers welcome 5 nieces and nephews for me to practice on. I was training to become a paediatrician and there was an expectation – mostly self-assigned – that I would cruise through this newborn journey with aplomb, enjoying perfect babies that waltz out of their womb and sleep soundly through the night from day 1. The crash to reality was rapid, brutal and unlike any other physical or emotional challenge I’ve ever experienced or conceived of.
My story is unfortunately common. Across the globe, fathers can struggle to engage with their newborn, feel disconnected from their partner and baby, lack confidence and suffer from their own post-natal maladjustment or anxiety/depression disorder.
What happens in the brain of a mother, following a baby’s birth?
Oxytocin is a hormonethat rises significantly in mothers following childbirth. It has a fundamental role insocial bonding, love, trust and generosity.
Oxytocin has also shown toactivate and grow a part of the brain called the amygdala. This is important for processing memory and drives emotions like fear, anxiety and aggression.
Theheightened amygdala activation is what drives a mother’s hypersensitivity to their baby, making her attentive, loving and deeply affectionate.
This alsomakes the mother far more likely to want to feed an unsettled baby.
It’sclose to impossible for a breastfeeding mother to not feed, when picking up an unsettled baby. And if the baby is being held right next to a food source, knowing that it will be comforted by the closeness and the sucking reflex – then why wouldn’t they want to feed?
That is why fathers are more likely to be able to resettle a baby, if something wakes them before a scheduled feed.
Fathers don’t have that same oxytocin surge:
We also don’t smell of breastmilk. So, when we hold a crying baby, we send them a very clear message – through our touch, through our hormones, through our energy, that they are not going to get fed. Babies – astute communicators – can sense this and are far more likely to settle down. For this reason,fathers are often much more successful in settling babies than mothers are.
We can use this fact to our benefit when we’re trying to establish a nice routine, or resettle a baby who has woken unexpectedly early.
Whenever possible,have baby sleep on dad’s side of the bed – so they’re not overly stimulated by mum’s proximity.
When they wake early, have dad make the first attempt at resettling. Not only does this improve the likelihood of achieving the routine, italso enables mothers to sleep more – speeding up recovery, boosting breastmilk supply and replenishing energy stores.
Fathers can also take over the late evening feed if they want to be involved in the feeding process too. This can be achieved with expressed breast milk and a bottle, or with formula (though if you’re working on establishing breastfeeding, avoid this in the first month).
Having fathers more involved has benefits that extend far beyond just establishing a good routine:
We know that more involved fathers have significantly lower levels of paternal postnatal depression and anxiety. We know that when having a second or third child, having fathers do the bulk of the care of a newborn (except for the breastfeeding) frees the mother to spend more quality time with the older siblings. This prevents predictable, major behavioural challenges in 2-4-year-olds, who miss being the centre of attention when a new baby arrives.
And lastly – but most incredibly, we know thatwhen fathers assume a greater role in parenting, are or the main caregiver – even without breastfeeding – they too, develop higher levels of circulating oxytocin. They too, have the same amygdala response.
Dads! It’s not childbirth that offers up this oxytocin surge – it’s not limited to mothers. It’s just being close to a newborn, it’s settling a cry, changing a nappy, striving for that reciprocal smile. Giving love to this little bundle of joy is what opens up this well of unconditional love and emotion.
For years, women have been achieving more and more in society. Greater levels of education, expectation and work than any other time in history – but no equivalent reduction in the expectation to do the majority of newborn parenting.
Finally, workplaces are starting to wake up to this inequity and we’re seeing more modern companies offer elongated paternity leave packages. This is the seismic societal shift we need, for fathers to be more involved in the care of newborns – for the immeasurable benefit for the baby, the undoubtable benefit for the mother – but more than all of that combined – for theinfinite benefit for us.
Fathers, enjoy this day devoted to you.