Ask Dr. Sears: Single Father, Deceased Mother
Q. I'm the father of an 11-month-old boy. My wife passed away about a month ago, and it's been hard for the both of us. But my concern is for my son. Right after it happened, he would walk from room to room calling for her. Will the death of his mother still affect him years from now, and will he even remember her? I know I can never replace his mom, but what can I do to be the best father I can be for him?
A. I offer my sympathy on the death of your wife, and I hope my advice can play a small part in helping you enjoy fathering your baby. Yes, your baby will remember his mother, as the mother-baby bond is never completely broken or forgotten. The only thing your baby understands at this age is that mommy is not there; he won't understand the permanency of death until many years later.
The best thing you can do for him is continue to give him the security he was used to when both you and his mother could provide it. This means developing what I call the attachment style of fathering, a way of caring for a baby that brings out the best in both father and child. Mothers enjoy biochemical perks that enhance bonding, such as a surge in mothering hormones during breastfeeding. Fathers can achieve a similar level of attachment -- they simply have to work at it. Use the following techniques:
Wear your baby. Babies love to be held and carried, and a baby sling is the best way to do so. This versatile cloth carrier is great for dads because it has no buckles and is easily adjustable. Put your baby in a sling and wear him as much as possible -- whether you're out on a morning walk, puttering around the house, or doing errands. Babywearing is good for both of you: It gets your baby used to your unique style of fathering -- your voice, your movements, your scent -- and it teaches you how to better read your baby. Because he's so close to you, you'll quickly begin reading his body language, needs, and wants. Another perk: Babies who are carried more cry less. And who wouldn't rather have a happy baby?
Use your manly gifts. Soothing a crying baby might seem easier for a mom since she can use breastfeeding as a source of comfort. But the following "pacifiers," which I have used with my own crying babies, are particularly dad-friendly. First is the "warm fuzzy": Drape baby skin-to-skin over your chest with his ear against your heartbeat. The rise and fall of your chest and your warm breath over his cheeks will send him to sleep in no time. Or try the "neck nestle." While in the warm fuzzy position, lay your cheekbones against baby's scalp and hum or even sing a low-key song like "Old Man River." Babies hear with the vibration of their skull bones as well as their eardrums. Your lower-pitched voice and the vibrations of your cheekbones and Adam's apple can lull baby right to sleep.
Feed with love. As you are feeding your son, remember that there should always be a person at both ends of the bottle. Don't bottle-prop. Not only is this unsafe (since the baby can choke), but feeding should be a social time where you look at, touch, and talk to your baby. You'll enjoy feeding him that much more if you make it a social interaction rather than just another chore.
Forget the fear of spoiling. As a single dad, you'll be the target of lots of advice from well-meaning friends and relatives. Remember, this is your baby, and the style of fathering you choose needs to come from your heart. Above all, avoid the "let him cry it out" crowd who insist that your baby should be trained to sleep through the night and to cry less. Proponents of this baby-care style claim that it makes for an easier baby now, but I feel it's bad in the long-term. As a pediatrician, I've noticed that this detachment style of care causes both a distance and distrust to develop between parent and child -- just the opposite of what you and your son need right now.
When you are ready to employ a sitter or other caregiver, make sure she is caring and nurturing. Tell her you want your baby to be held as much as possible and worn in a sling. Make sure she knows you don't believe in letting babies cry. A baby's cry is his language, and it needs to be responded to in a consistent, nurturing way.
Get some resources. Get a copy of our book The Baby Book. You can use this as a month-to-month guide to help you develop your fathering style and learn how babies grow and what they need at various developmental stages.
As your baby's primary caregiver, it's only natural for you to wonder whether you're doing enough for him. When baby-care decisions come up, it may be helpful to imagine how your wife would want you to act in the situation. Another parenting tool to help with decision-making: Ask yourself, "If I were my baby, how would I want my daddy to act?" Keep making the best decisions you can as a parent -- it's all that you, and your baby, can ask for.