Daddy and baby bonding time
How dads can successfully form a lifelong connection with their children
It’s different for everyone, but when it happens you know.
“For me, I felt that skin-to-skin was a good bonding experience for both myself and each baby,” said Al Dugan, father of two from Keene. “I could do without the sleep deprivation, but man, there's nothing better than your sleeping infant curled up on your chest, warm and peaceful as can be, while you stay up until the early morning hours watching endless TV. If it's her favorite spot and she can go several hours without waking up it is so worth it.”
“Hopefully this is not weird, but I always loved sniffing my baby's head,” he added. "I still do it to my 1-year old after bath time."
Moms can have bonding experiences with baby such as breastfeeding and, of course, the nine months or so the baby spends in her body, but there’s plenty of ways for dads to create strong and lasting bonds with their children.
In recent years there has been a push to emphasize the importance of dads being given the time and opportunities they need to bond with baby.
“I think this is a combination of social change that moves away from traditional gender roles and research demonstrating the importance of fathers,” said Janis Lilly, program coordinator for The Upper Room, a Family Resource Center’s Teen Information for Parenting Success Program (TIPS) and the resource specialist for Rockingham County for Child and Family Services Health Family America program.
Her inclusion and advocacy for young fathers through New Hampshire’s E3 Fatherhood Program has been a highlight.
“Many young adults,” she said, “are more likely to be looking for partners who will share in both earning an income and taking care of the family.”
This is a departure from the traditional roles of the “breadwinner and homemaker,” she said. The research has also started to catch up with this notion, showing the importance of dads for children’s development. The upshot is children with warm and involved fathers, Lilly said, have better outcomes across the board.
“Children whose fathers are involved in positive ways do better in school, have fewer behavioral issues, and have healthier social connections,” Lilly said. “For fathers, especially for young fathers, being involved with children can help them avoid risky behavior, and boosts confidence and feelings of self-worth.”
Bonding with your baby, said Carrie Santos of Child and Family Services, is as simple as loving them. There are many ways to show your love, including feeding and caring for them, changing diapers and responding to their cues to provide emotional attachment. All of this, Santos said, teaches baby that they can count on dad to care for them and keep them safe.
“Bonding is important because we know that healthy attachments provide the necessary foundation for children to grow and self-regulate their emotional temperature,” Santos said. “We want babies to grow up healthy and happy.”
Lilly said when children trust their caregivers very early in life they build a foundation for trusting others in future relationships.
But, bonding may feel different to each father, Lilly said. Dads can look for signs that their baby recognizes them and responds positively to them (making eye contact, smiling, giggling). That said, if a baby doesn’t do those things right away, that isn’t a reason to panic, as some babies are just a little slower to be social.
“Each baby and father will bond differently,” she said. “The key is to just keep engaging with the baby in positive ways: talking, singing, smiling, holding, bathing and feeding are all ways that fathers can bond with their babies.”
It’s also helpful for fathers to seek out a play group where they can take their kids and share their feelings and concerns with other parents. Lilly also suggests engaging in a program such as the home visiting programs offered by Child and Family Services or parenting support groups at local statewide family resource centers like The Upper Room in Derry.
“Dads can begin to feel isolated if they do not have someone to bounce these natural and normal concerns off of,” Lilly said. “These programs work with families and fathers as tour guides of fatherhood, not just travel agents who wish you well on your trip.”
Sometimes the bonding process is slow to start. This occurs for a variety of reasons, Santos said, such as an extended hospital stay, mom and dad not co-parenting, a medical or developmental reason, or baby is colicky and just doesn't bond.
“It happens,” she said. “Our advice is to just keep trying and not give up. The more involved dads can be, the better. If dads have the ability to engage with their babies and establish a routine, just through repetition a form of bonding can occur.”
Lilly said it is also important for fathers not to compare their own bonding process to the one baby has with mom. Mothers who have carried the baby can – although not always – have a bond before the child is even born.
“The process of giving birth is also a powerful experience for many women,” Lilly said. “Men’s role in pregnancy and birth is different, so their bonding process may also be different. “
For example, she said, women sometimes bond through breastfeeding whereas men may bond by playing with their babies or engaging in other basic care such as bathing and soothing.
That was what the process was like for Westmoreland father of two Justin Barney.
“I'd say that the bonding experience was gradual,” said Barney. “Although I hugged, cuddled, kissed, rocked, and changed diapers, our children relied heavily on their mom in the earliest stages of infancy. It wasn't until later, after they were weaned, that I was able to bond at another level. The experience of bonding was precious as a new dad.”
Paid paternity leave is still not universal and so dads early on find they have to make time for bonding.
“Traditionally we link that to financial support, which is absolutely a component,” Lilly said. “However, most people's best memory of their father or father figure is when they shared an activity or connected in common, everyday ways. Even if you are separated from your child or children, by minutes or miles, you can build a strong foundation in your relationship by being present and actively engaged when you do have that one-on-one time.”
Which means, said Santos, making time at some point during the day to see your baby. Whether it’s the 3 a.m. feeding or the nighttime bath ritual, dads can be present, she said.
Reading to baby, using silly voices, blowing “raspberries” on bellies — all endear dad to baby. If you have to be away, Santos said, try using a smart phone to record messages or video that others can play for baby to hear.
“Make the time you are together meaningful but most importantly make the time,” Santos said. “It sounds so trivial but the most important way for dads to bond with their baby is to just try.”
For Barney, bonding included long walks, "tummy time,” and playing music with his kids. As they’ve gotten older that’s evolved into, “regular dates out, camping with just me and them, and specific one-on-one time is part of my routine.”
Dugan suggests including the kids in favorite activities like biking.
“Once they are over a year old and have good-enough sitting posture, get yourself one of those little seats that attach to your mountain bike – the kind that attaches in front of you rather than in back of you. I find this to be a lot safer and more comforting for both toddler and dad. It's a ton of fun for both of you and a great way to bond.”
Melanie Plenda is a full-time freelance journalist and mother living in Keene.