Resources for professionals
Dads Need to Know
the infant brain
babies are like sponges
dads and their dads
a chance to have a second childhood
being a great dad is good for you
What Dads Need to Know About Babies
A father needs to know that most of the genes a baby is born with are not fixed things. 70% of our genes are re-programmed according to the baby's (and later, child's experience. What goes on around their child is a huge factor in what kind of person that child becomes.
The Infant Brain
A father needs to know that their baby's brain is on a fast track of growth - much faster than their body. The brain is so active and learning so quickly that it reaches 90% of its full mature size by the time the child turns three years old. By contrast, their body will only be 20% of their physical size by then.
Fathers need to know that all this early learning is both about the physical world and it's about their developing intelligence and emotions. Emotional intelligence (EQ) is arguably even more important than intellect (IQ). EQ is the basis of how well a person understands, empathises and negotiates with people. These fundamental social abilities (as well as their perception of the world) are largely in place by the time a child turns three. And they are a result of how they are treated and cared for primarily by their mum and their dad.
If the child has been treated lovingly and respectfully in a mostly peaceful household, they will perceive the world as a friendly, interesting place that is manageable and that they will feel eager to explore.
Fathers need to know that if there is a lot of distress or fighting in the house, if their baby doesn’t get their needs met, if they often felt frightened and alone or if they are constantly being told off or told they are stupid or a bad boy or girl, then they are likely to grow up with those messages embedded in themself. Such a child will approach the world as an unfriendly, frightening place that is against them. Such a child will struggle in life.
Babies Are Like Sponges
Fathers need to know that a newborn has no sense of being separate. They have no idea where they end and where the world begins: their hand or foot, their father’s nose, the side of the cot, a toy is all the same. This means that newborns and infants experience everything as “me”. Making distinctions between themself and the rest of the world is something they have to learn progressively. What this means is that what goes on within the baby’s environment – whatever they see, hear or feel – they experiences as happening directly to them.
If the people around the baby are angry or shouting, if there is violence or emotional abuse within the baby’s sight or hearing, they experience it as if it is happening to them. If they are touched abruptly or sharply or if they sense (hears, sees or feels) hostility around them, they will feel aroused, frightened and unsafe. This tension will send them into the survival modes of their lower brain. If such behaviour is common in the baby’s environment, they have two coping mechanisms. One is to cry because they are frightened and feels insecure. The other is to withdraw and go quiet in an attempt not to draw attention to themself. These are how babies cope with trauma.
In contrast, providing a generally cheerful, peaceful environment provides what babies need for healthy brain development. A positive environment means that their needs are met before they begins to panic, and their distress is interrupted before it becomes overpowering. If what the baby hears, sees and feels (including how people speak to each other around him, how they are spoken to and touched) are for the most part positive and peaceful, they will feel safe and secure.
“My husband, [name], and I have three beautiful boys, soon to welcome number four (gender unknown, but likely a boy!) to the family. We had our first two boys, ten and eight years ago, and left a big gap of almost 7 years before our youngest was born 20 months ago. Our lives are completely different now from when we had the first two, less financial and social pressures. [My partner] now wishes he had been around more all those years ago. He has been struck by the strong bond that kicked in straight away with our youngest child, and this is all because he had the time (or took the time) to spend with him as a baby. With the first two it was all about providing, working every hour of the day and being stoic about not sacrificing his sports! He now reflects on how selfish this was, and also what he has missed out on by making those conscious choices. He was parenting like his father had done, and he’d turned out alright…right?!
Our wee boy adores his father, and is often drawn to him before me, which is the exact opposite of the older two. [My partner] still struggles to connect with our eldest son in particular, and has to make a conscious effort to engage with him, where this all comes without any effort with the youngest. He can’t believe the power of the small investment of time made early on and can’t wait to get involved with baby number 4.
For me, after suffering with PND [postnatal depression] after baby number 2, probably from being completely overwhelmed with little support, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed mothering again myself. This time I feel like I really have a parenting partner, and this has done our marriage the world of good!” – Mother of two60
Dads and Their Dads
Father need to know that what kind of dad he becomes was influenced by his own up-bringing.
When fathers are asked in antenatal classes if they are going to be a father like their own father, the answers range from “I’d be chuffed if I’m as good a dad as he was, he was awesome” to “He was hardly ever there, and when he did turn up, it was awful. I wouldn’t do a single thing like him.”
Whether we had a positive upbringing or not, how we were parented is often the strongest model we have. It’s important for a new father to reflect on his experience growing up with his parents because if he doesn’t, he will probably follow the same parenting style he was raised by – whether that was good, bad or in between. This is just human nature.
Men who decide that they will (or will not) be a father like their father are making a conscious decision – and that’s a good thing. If a father considers the models he’s had, he will be more thoughtful about what kind of father he will be to his children.
When expecting fathers are asked what they would do different from what their fathers did – even for those who had positive memories of their dad – the most common answer is “If I can, I’d like to spend more time with my kid than my dad spent with me.”
Men who are asked to take a moment to reflect on what kind of father they want to be may realise that they are not captives of their past. Deep-seated hurt can last a lifetime, but that doesn’t mean they have to take it to their children. When people are aware of their past, they are more able to be the father they wanted their own father to be.
Like Having a Second childhood
Having a child can be an opportunity for the father to have the childhood they would have liked for themselves. Few boys or girls got the total package of fathering or mothering that they wanted. Having a baby of their own is an opportunity to re-live childhood through their child. It gives the man an excuse to be silly and to play. Being a parent is undoubtedly a lot of work and added responsibility, but it is also the opportunity to live another childhood along with their child.
Being a great dad is good for you
Men who say that parenting takes up a greater proportion of their time also rate higher in terms of their own self-esteem. Perhaps this means that being an active, engaged father – more than just having children – makes a man’s life more meaningful.