When Melanie, a happy new mom, and her baby, Jason, recently came into my office for his two-week checkup, she had more worries about her husband than questions about the baby. "I feel so close to Jason, but I'm afraid Nick doesn't," she said. "How can I help them to bond?"It's a concern I've heard many times before from new moms, and one that my wife, Martha, and I had when we were just starting out as parents. Almost every dad I've met wants to feel close to his child, but it's not always easy for a father to carve out a role in his baby's life.
What can you do to help nurture a deeper connection between your baby and husband? Here, five moves that will go a long way:
Give them their space
After you've spent nine months carrying your child, and then almost all day (and night) taking care of her, it's natural to think Mother Knows Best. About everything. But when a mom like Melanie comes into my office, the first thing I do is remind her that her husband isn't just a pinch hitter. Dads have a delightfully different way of relating to their babies -- and their babies enjoy this difference.
There's no need for you to hover around your husband at all times, ready to rescue your baby if she gets fussy in his arms. It may be tempting, especially if he isn't up to speed (or doesn't think he is). But if you fall into this pattern, you're likely to erode his self-confidence, and your baby won't get used to being comforted by him -- which will leave you without a moment's peace. So let them work things out on their own. You might be surprised at the fuss busters your partner musters up with absolutely no help from Mother.
When given freedom, he may start to develop his own rituals with your baby, like soothing car rides or a special song. The mom of one of my patients shared this scene with me: "One night I woke up to find my husband sitting at his computer listening to rock music, with the baby bouncing along to the beat." Another mom told me: "My husband was famous for the Daddy Dance. He'd take our twins downstairs and dance to his favorite CD in the living room. Years later these songs continue to calm them immediately. We call them 'Daddy's songs.'"
Help them get a little closer
Go shopping together for a sling-type carrier, which puts a baby close to her dad (and doesn't have a lot of complicated buckles and straps). Then encourage him to wear your baby in it often. This physical closeness is a very natural way for them to bond, and (bonus) he'll have his hands free to help out with the dishes!
Baby wearing is especially helpful during the witching hour -- the end of the day, when kids of all ages are prone to fussiness and meltdowns. This is a time when a dad can really shine. He can wear his baby around the neighborhood for some bonding time and exercise, while you take a nap or do something just for yourself.
Have Dad start from the bottom up
Your child will need thousands of diaper changes during the first few years, so why not make these hours count? Even just changing a few diapers a day is a great opportunity for bonding.
Encourage your partner to view diaper changing as fun time with the baby rather than simply a messy chore. But take it from me: You'll have more success with this if you don't scold him for doing it "wrong." There may be a few messes at first, but in no time he'll get it right.
Share feedings and sleeptime
If you're a combo-feeding family -- meaning both breast and bottle -- encourage Dad to take bottle duty often. Your baby drinks only formula? Try to split feedings evenly.
Then remind him that feeding should not be (or at least shouldn't always be) an opportunity to prop the baby and bottle in one arm while reading the paper or changing channels with the other. Let him see that a little bit of eye contact and some conversation (even a silly rhyme or some nonsense words) can go a long way.
Even if your baby is solely breastfed, your husband can get involved by adding the finishing touches. When she's done dining, your partner can let the baby go to town on his pinkie finger for a few minutes. Another idea: When she's finished nursing and is getting drowsy, ease her off your breast and into Daddy's arms. Once she gets used to him putting her to sleep, she'll be more likely to accept him comforting her back to sleep when she wakes up -- and, later, when she loses a beloved toy or falls and scrapes her knee.
Put Dad on the night shift
Let's be honest here: No matter how tired you are, it's not easy to convince a dad who works days to spend his nights awake with the baby -- especially if you stay home. So try striking a deal, like Martha and I did. If she could comfort the baby without getting out of bed, she did it. (Fortunately for me, this was usually the case.) But if the baby needed to be walked, then I was up. Rosa, a mom of a patient, shared her husband's contribution: "After a nighttime feeding, he gets up and uses his 'magic shoulder' to burp our baby for me." If having him help out at night during the week simply doesn't work for your family, try giving him the weekend night shift instead. It's worth the effort to find a solution. After all -- and I know this first hand -- the peace and quiet of nighttime is a great opportunity for a dad and baby to connect, even if they are both half asleep.
Two months after I gave Melanie advice in my office, she and baby Jason returned with Nick. As he walked in carrying his baby (yes, in a sling) and beaming with a father's pride, Melanie whispered to me, "He's hooked!" Clearly, Nick and Jason had made that daddy-baby connection.
Contributing editor William Sears, M.D., is a pediatrician in California. He most recently coauthored The Healthiest Kid in the Neighborhood.