Research suggests that fathers who are hand-on early and throughout their babies' early years will be less stressed, and the children benefit too.
The importance of father-child bonding
Whether they deserve it or not, new dads can get a bad press for failing to be "hands-on" with their new son or daughter. But now a growing body of research suggests that the sooner fathers starting bonding with their baby, the brighter the future for the whole family.
Dads who play with their kids from day one not only boost their child's physical and mental development significantly more than those who don't "join in", but hands-on fathers also suffer from less stress. "Fathers can attune to their babies, to become familiar with them, their likes and dislikes, and therefore increase their confidence with the baby," insists Helen Hans, a postnatal leader with the UK's National Childcare Trust.
Modern fathers seemingly have no qualms these days about holding the baby. Many of them have seen role-model dads such as David Beckham, Jamie Oliver, Will Smith and Johnny Depp carrying their babies or taking time out with their kids and now follow suit. Recent studies from a German Primate Centre in Gottingen found that men also develop a stronger interpersonal relationship if they regularly put their baby in a papoose-style carrier and take them out to explore the world.
Scientists observed male Barbary macaques bringing their babies to social gatherings to help them bond with other males in the society and to lift their status in the group. More recently, researchers at Memorial University in Newfoundland, Canada and the Bar-Itan University in Israel have found that men experience a surge in "bonding" hormones around the time their children are born.
The Canadian studies suggest that even during their wives' pregnancies, men experience a shift in their levels of stress hormone, cortisol, as well as prolactin, a hormone linked to parenting behaviour. This is backed up by the data from Israel which also shows a rise in oxytocin, a chemical that can dilute a man's alpha-male attitude and engender a more nurturing nature. In short, it's an evolutionary response to turn lads into dads.
However, those hormone levels have in time been found to return to pre-pregnancy levels in men. And so, once the initial elation of becoming a father is over, many dads can tend to take a back seat in parenting. Experts such as Hans suggest that by maintaining a hands-on involvement with their children through the toddling years, fathers can strike up a relationship that will help them and their children combat issues later in life such as depression.
"Fathers play a hugely important role in the mental health of their children much later in life," explains Melanie Mallers, a professor in psychology at the California State University. "They have a unique style of interacting with their children and men who report having had a good relationship with their father during childhood were found to be better at dealing with stress."
Men are more "rough and tumble" with their toddlers and children, and encourage more risk-taking behaviour. "They also use a very different vocabulary with their children, often using complicated words where mothers tend to adjust their language down. This helps to broaden the child's vocabulary," adds Hans.
"Babies who have benefited from paternal interactions from an early age get on better with their peers," insists Dr Lin Day, the founder of Baby Sensory development classes (www.babysensory.com). "They're academically more successful, stay in school longer, use drugs and alcohol less frequently and are less likely to get involved with crime. They may also be better equipped socially and psychologically than infants who receive very little attention from their fathers."
So why don't more dads bond with their babies? Unfortunately, some are simply inclined to take an "it's cute - but what does it do?" attitude to their children when they're at such an early stage in their development. For many other men, work pressures or time constraints mean they just don't get the same opportunities to interact with their new son or daughter.
"At first sight, it may appear to fathers that there is little interaction possible with a newborn baby," explains Hans. "But by being attentive to the small details and nuances, dads can get a lot of satisfaction and benefit from communicating and caring for the baby." Time spent with the baby in the early weeks and months should provide a positive foundation for the developing relationship as the child grows, making fatherhood more rewarding and enjoyable.