Like any good dad, I’ve given some serious thought to protecting my 20-month-old should she ever tango with trouble. If an out-of-control steamroller threatens to flatten her, I’ll push her aside and become a human pancake. If we go to the zoo and a crazed hyena crosses her path, I’ll throw myself into his teeth. If Isabelle reaches for a glass of spoiled milk, I’ll grab it — and drink it.
Well, maybe I’ll just pour the milk down the sink. But you get the idea. I’ll do anything for this baby. We have bonded — which is easier said than done.
Moms are schooled on the baby business from the moment they’re given a doll to hug and hold. But my memories of playing with a Han Solo action figure never helped me when it came to taking care of my daughter. Unfortunately, that’s the case for a lot of new dads, who look at their newborns more as aliens in diapers than bundles of joy.
But bonding with your child shouldn’t be something that’s left entirely to mom. Why? It’s a confusing world for a baby: strange people, strange noises, strange shapes and sizes and sounds. Dads help bring stability to a baby’s world, letting the infant know that she’s twice as loved and twice as safe. If you aren’t involved in your baby’s life, your child may not initially be able to distinguish between you, the cat, and the coatrack.
Besides your own left-out feelings, your baby may feel anxious and insecure if you’re not a tangible, consistent part of her life, says Louis Laguna, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Lebanon Valley College in Annville, Pennsylvania. “If a baby doesn’t have a secure attachment to a parent, she may feel like she has no control of her environment, and (as she gets older) she could become withdrawn, act out, or get in trouble more often.”
So go ahead and wonder what you’d do in a crazed hyena attack, if you want, but don’t forget to develop strategies for creating an early attachment between you and your baby.
Get a Head Start
When my wife, Susan, was pregnant, we celebrated Mother’s Day in style. She was showered with gifts and flowers from both me and our families.
Just a month later, though, on Father’s Day, Susan and I, along with a handful of relatives, gathered at my grandmother’s home for lunch as we frequently do. I wasn’t expecting much — maybe a coffee mug, maybe a heartfelt speech. After all, Isabelle wasn’t even born yet.
My mother cleared her throat. “It’s really nothing,” she said, handing my wife a card. “I just wanted to show you how much I care.” Susan was touched. I stared at them in disbelief. My mother is giving my wife a card on Father’s Day? Doesn’t anybody understand the irony here? I guess not. Around the room, everybody — my brother, my dad — was talking about the weather and the Cincinnati Reds.
No wonder it’s difficult for dads to immediately bond with their babies. Moms-to-be have intimate contact with the baby for nine months, and they get their own cheering section. Dads-to-be don’t even get coffee mugs!
The lesson? Special father-child relationships need to start at the beginning. Bond with your baby, even before he’s born, if you can.
I admit it can be hard to connect with a 3-month-old fetus, but you can still do things that matter, from putting money aside for a future college education to learning how to change a diaper. You can make a will. If you smoke, you can quit, since secondhand cigarette and cigar smoke can affect both the mom and her passenger. You can paint the nursery, since expectant moms should stay away from the fumes. Buy a baseball glove, or a stuffed animal, or an outfit. I bought our baby a sleeper and was blown away by how I felt about a meager $12 purchase. Every time Isabelle wore the outfit, you’d have thought I had discovered plutonium or invented cheese by the way I acted.
Touch your partner’s belly often and feel your baby kicking. Talk to the baby so she can get used to the sound of your voice. Listen to classical music with your partner and know that your baby can hear and enjoy the music as well.
Newborns Need Dads, Too
Bond immediately with your baby. Be there at the birth. Cut the cord. Bring the baby to her mother. Those first moments are so important, stresses Greg Bishop, founder of Boot Camp for New Dads ( www.newdads.com), a program that’s in over 150 hospitals throughout the United States. “Don’t let anybody — not even your wife — get in the way of you and your baby,” says Bishop, offering the tale of one father he knew who spent all of his time after the birth of his child working and doing almost no baby-rearing. It was after the divorce when the father told Bishop, “You know, one day, I came home, and it was like they were a family, and I was on the outside.”
No wonder, Bishop says, “a lot of guys are so uncomfortable with a newborn, they decide they’ll get involved when he’s old enough to play Little League. But if you’re doing that, you’re really missing the boat. Guys need to jump right in.”
Though many dads think they’re more of a nuisance than a necessity around their newborns, nothing could be further from the truth. “Moms represent comfort and security,” says Bishop, “but to babies, dads represent what’s new and interesting. Moms are busy with their everyday needs, but we’re adding adventure to the mix.” So holding and talking to your newborn gives him exactly what he needs. Giving more — say, feeding your baby formula or bottled breast milk — gives Mom what she needs, too.
Plus, men are often well-suited for the day-to-day tasks of caring for a baby, like feeding, diapering, and bathing. If you’re a handyman sort of guy, such activities should be up your alley, says Bishop, who adds that a lot of fathers enjoy giving babies baths, and even burping them, since each activity has a kind of mechanical process involved.
If you still feel like you’re all thumbs, find other special ways to spend time with your infant. It was months before I felt comfortable giving Isabelle a bath on my own, so instead, I began giving my wife a morning off every Saturday while Isabelle and I would visit with family and friends. They could share some of the load of caring for a little baby, and I could show Isabelle off.
Bonding Even When You’re Busy
Hanging out with your baby for hours every day isn’t always practical, especially if you haven’t won the $345 million state lottery. So if you’re worried because your parent-child dynamic can only be created in snatches of time instead of stretches, make those minutes count. “Establishing a routine or ritual is a good way to maximize your child’s understanding that you fit into her life,” says Jonathan Pochyly, Ph.D., a child psychologist at Children’s Memorial Hospital in Chicago. “By the time they’re 5 or 6 months old, babies are old enough to start responding to a schedule. It’s comforting to them, and they understand that the parent plays a role in their life.”
Think about incorporating one or more rituals into your life with your baby. Keep in mind that the trick to these tricks is to use them daily — the special time you share with your baby every day will do just as much for you as it does for her:
* Read to your baby. What’s great about reading is that you can start well before the baby is born. I read “‘Twas the Night Before Christmas” aloud one night when my wife was pregnant. As my voice rose, so did Isabelle’s feet inside Susan’s tummy. I was in awe. Ever since our baby came home from the hospital, I’ve read to her almost every evening before bedtime. Never mind that your baby will eventually want to chew on the book (which reading experts encourage). And never mind that she can’t follow the plot. Your baby gets it. You’re there every evening, or every morning, and your baby will know that this is your time.
* Give your baby a massage. “Touch is one of the most essential elements of bonding, and the way you touch communicates love and comfort to your child,” says Michelle Kluck, a certified infant massage instructor. In a 1986 study from the Touch Research Institute at the University of Miami School of Medicine in Florida, premature babies were massaged three times a day for 10 days. The massaged babies gained 47 percent more weight and were released six days earlier than the babies who weren’t.
“I know fathers are afraid of massaging a baby,” says Kluck. “They’ll tell me, ‘We have big hands, and we don’t want to break the baby’s arm.’ But babies are resilient. As long as you’re gentle and careful, and keep the pressure light, you can give an amazing massage to the baby. And the great thing about baby massage is, they react right away (with smiles or by calming down), so it’s immediate gratification.” Call the International Association of Infant Massage at 805-644-8524 to find a massage class near you.
*Play with your baby. “Play is critical to the bonding process,” says Laguna. Get down on your hands and knees, at eye level with your child, so you can really interact and your baby can respond to your facial expressions and see that you are responding to his. Not only will you be having fun, but there’s been some research that supports the importance of play in the development of babies’ brains. “I think that fathers tend to engage in rough-and-tumble play with their boys,” adds Laguna, “but it’s just as important for girls to play with their fathers.”
* Bring your baby on errands. If you feel pressed for time, “give Mom a break, and take your baby when you’re going out. Take him to Home Depot,” says Bridgett Blackburn, a psychologist who teaches a class called “Just for Dads: Before and After Pregnancy” at Overlake Hospital Medical Center in Bellevue, Washington. So — from a distance — show your baby the drill-saw, the power tools, and the lumber. Or books, CDs, garden supplies, or whatever your thing is. Basically, show your baby your world. Let him stare at the shop clerk or babble endlessly in Aisle Seven. Moms — especially stay-at-home moms — are frequently the ones who are teaching babies to talk, listen, and touch, from almost sunrise to sundown, which is why Blackburn observes: “Moms often give babies the skills. Dads give them a chance to use them.”
Geoff Williams is a full-time freelance journalist based in Loveland, Ohio.