Fathers of newborns – a call to action
For years, women have been achieving more and more in society. Greater heights of education, expectation and employment than any other time in history – but have we seen an equivalent reduction in the expectation to do the majority of newborn parenting?
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 simultaneously 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 – and we might just be the key to having a perfectly well-settled baby and entire family unit.
Nowadays, babies arrive into families of all different shapes and sizes. From traditional couples to single parents, surrogacy, same-sex families and more. It’s wonderful that almost everyone has the ability to become a parent now – but regardless of the look of the family unit, it’s important we focus for a moment on the role of the non-breastfeeding parent. For ease of explaining, I’ll just refer to them as the father for now, but know that it can be anyone else in the home.
Any parent will attest that the sleep deprivation associated with having a newborn is immensely challenging. The only respite occurs when feeds stretch longer and sleep consolidates into sizable blocks, allowing the entire house to catch up on valuable sleep debt. Settling a baby to sleep is one the biggest challenges of this newborn period and fathers are often more successful in settling babies, than mothers are. Surprised?
Following a baby’s birth, a mother gets a flood of oxytocin (hormone) which plays a fundamental role in social bonding, love, trust and generosity. It also activates a part of the brain called the amygdala. This is important for processing memory and drives emotions like fear, anxiety and aggression. The heightened amygdala activation is what drives a mother’s hypersensitivity to their baby, making her attentive, loving and deeply affectionate. This also makes the mother far more likely to want to feed an unsettled baby.
It’s close 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.
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. Not only does this improve the likelihood of achieving the routine, it also enables mothers to sleep more – speeding up recovery, boosting breastmilk supply and replenishing energy stores.
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 also 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 that when 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, underestimated bundle of joy is what opens up this well of unconditional love and emotion.
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 undoubtle benefit for the mother – but more than all of that combined – for the infinite benefit for us.