Hands-On Dad, a Fathering Booklet for New Dads
Hands-On Dad is the second in a series of booklets from the Parenting for Life program promoting positive parenting skills and the wellbeing of families. The booklet provides information for first-time fathers of a newborn infant. The program includes booklets and posters produced by Today’s Parent magazine and The Psychology Foundation of Canada. Although the language is not as inclusive as would be ideal for CAPC/CPNP programs, the well-written, straightforward material could easily be adapted for program use.
The booklet is divided into 5 main sections:
- Getting Started: the first two weeks at home
- Your Baby: the amazing little stranger
- Your Partner: she needs you now more than ever
- Your Self: here’s looking at you, dad
- Your Family: new roles, new relationships
The booklet is primarily oriented towards fathers in a heterosexual, two-parent family. It starts from the perspective of encouraging fathers to support their partner immediately following the birth and establishment of new home routines. It stresses to dads that “you have an essential role to play right from the beginning”, and encourages working fathers to take parental leave in the first few weeks after birth, if possible, or, to help find sources of practical support for their partner while her body is recovering and she is establishing new routines with the baby, such as breastfeeding. “In these first few weeks your partner needs to focus on the baby and her own recovery from childbirth.” Support with groceries, meals, housework, errands, and coping with visitor overload is invaluable: “If you can’t end the visit and your partner’s looking tired you might say something like, ‘You’ve been up for a long time. I can look after things if you want to go and lie down for a while’”
An information page on Breastfeeding can be printed separately as a handout, illustrating the ways in which dads can offer support in establishing successful breastfeeding. For men who have had little experience with the birthing and nurturing of a newborn, the handout contains straightforward information, directed to dads, that addresses common areas of misunderstanding, and times when dads can often feel awkward about asking questions, or don’t know what to ask.
What Can I Do?
- Make It Easier for Her: Change the baby, bring her the baby in bed, fetch her a drink of juice or water (breastfeeding mothers get thirsty).
- Be Her Biggest Fan: Let your [partner] know that you believe in and admire what she is doing.
- Watch Your Baby Nurse: Just sit and be with them sometimes. You’ll soon see that breastfeeding is more than just feeding.
Did You Know?
- The Actual Milk won’t “Come In” For a Few Days: At first your [partner’s] breasts will produce a thick, yellowish fluid called colostrum. There’s not much of it, but it’s just what your newborn needs. When her milk comes in, she may have a day or two of discomfort from engorged (over-full, swollen) breasts. Frequent nursing will help.
- Breastfed Babies Need to Nurse Often: And feeding whenever the baby is hungry helps establish a good milk supply (the more the baby nurses, the more milk is made). The old “four-hour feeding schedule” is not appropriate for breastfed babies!
- Breastfeeding is a Skill that Mother and Baby Learn Together: It might be a few weeks before it’s the easy, rewarding experience your partner has been looking forward to.
- Bottles and Breasts Require Different Kinds of Sucking: If you want to give a bottle, it’s best to wait until your baby is an experienced breastfeeder (about six weeks).
The booklet offers reassurance to dads that “new parents sometimes need outside help.” It emphasizes that for a new mother sometimes “a simple act like making a phone call will feel like climbing a mountain. So…offer to make the call yourself.” The handout provides examples from the experience of others, e.g. “One day I came home from work and I could see that Suzanne was scared and in a lot of pain. I said, ‘Look, let’s go to the hospital and get you checked out. If it’s nothing, no harm done.’ As it turned out, her Caesarean incision was infected and she needed an antibiotic. It’s a good thing we went.” Dads are encouraged to turn to a doctor, hospital, public health unit, lactation consultant, or experienced friend or relative with questions or concerns.
“You may have heard stories about fathers who ‘bonded’ with their babies in the delivery room. In truth what we are talking about is getting to know a little person, and that takes time.”
The booklet offer suggestions for building relationship with one’s newborn, such as caring for the baby (comforting, bathing, changing diapers); holding the baby (starting when the baby is asleep); carrying the baby in a sling or front carrier to get used to the feel of closeness and intimacy; and as one feels more confident, going solo with the baby, starting with short sessions (half an hour to an hour) with a freshly fed baby.
The writers address sleep deprivation. “Realistically, expect to be getting up in the night for months, not weeks. In the meantime, you both might need to adjust your own sleep habits so you don’t turn into zombies. That may mean going to bed earlier, napping when the baby sleeps, or giving an exhausted partner a weekend morning sleep-in.”
A significant section on crying has suggestions on coping with and soothing a high-need or ‘colicky’ baby. The booklet stresses that “crying is how your baby ‘tells’ you that he is uncomfortable or upset. That’s why it’s so important to respond, even though you won’t always be able to soothe him right away…. Responding to your baby’s cry is a good thing to do. It helps him learn that how he feels matters to someone and that he can trust you to take care of him.”
The booklet talks about how to play and interact with a baby, and makes the point that “a baby’s favourite ‘toy’ is one of her parents, and your face is the best part.” Suggestions include lying face-to-face with your baby and singing or speaking softly to her. “The key is to watch how she responds. If you can do that, you’ll get a feel for what she likes. Your play will develop over the months and you’ll just ‘know’ what to do.” It also offers the reminder that a when a baby becomes tired or fussy, she needs soothing, not entertaining. “Remember to be gentle, and watch for signs that she’s had enough.”
The booklet offers practical insights into womens’ physical recovery process of becoming ‘unpregnant’, including the reminder that if she has had a Caesarean section, she will need extra help.
There is a section on understanding a partner’s thoughts and feelings during this period:
- “It really is hard to describe the way a new baby can fill up a new mother’s head and heart….new fathers are sometimes taken aback by the intensity of the mother-baby bond. Don’t worry. That strong connection is good for both of them...Your [partner] is learning to be a mother. As she becomes more comfortable in her new role, her world will expand again.”
- “Men often think that women have an instinctive ability to mother…but really, parenting is a skill that we all have to learn. At times, she might get rattled and seem to take it out on you. Try to be understanding – as she gains experience and confidence, you’ll both feel less on edge.”
- One’s partner’s self-image is in transition as she adapts to her new role, and it is natural to experience some sense of loss within this transition. “She may wonder if she will ever be [her old self] again. Of course she will, but for the time being, her old roles are on the backburner. There’s a new little person who’s taking up a lot of space in her life (and yours). Both of you need to get used to this feeling.”
- “Baby Blues”: “There is a short-lived period of weepiness which often occurs in the first week. You may feel like it’s your fault, but most experts believe that a rapid shift in hormone levels is the cause….Baby blues is not the same as post partum depression, a much more serious and long-term condition” that requires professional help. The booklet has a separate section on how to find support resources for PPD.
The authors also discuss the need for on-going relational support for one’s partner after the first few weeks:
- Exhaustion can continue to be an issue for some time, so it is invaluable to continue with the routines of sharing housework and child care on an ongoing basis.
- Listen. “As she gets used to a whole new lifestyle, your partner will need to talk about her feelings with someone who understands. That can be you.”
- Notice. “Parents hardly ever get told what a good job they’re doing. Yet it means a lot when someone notices your hard work and dedication – so show your admiration!”
- Give her a break: “If she’s feeling stressed out, offer her a ‘rest-cure’: bring her meals and snacks, take over the baby care…let her sleep, read, watch a video, visit a friend – whatever she wants.”
The booklet addresses common concerns for fathers:
- “It’s common for men to fear that fatherhood will take something away from them – freedom, money, vacations, whatever. Is it all gone? ….Becoming a father is one of life’s major changes. Transitions like getting married or starting your first job all required you to adjust and get used to something new. What’s certain is that you have gained something, too. The relationship that you can have with this child is one of the most precious and rewarding experiences life has to offer.”
- New Responsibilities: “There’s nothing that makes you feel more like a ‘grownup’ than being a parent – and that can be a bit scary. But your new responsibilities will feel more comfortable once you have had a chance to grow into them.”
- Feeling Left Out: “Your partner has less time and energy for you. You may also feel left out of that close mother-baby relationship…. It doesn’t have to be that way. You can (and should) develop your own connection to the baby.”
- ‘Afraid’ of the Baby: “If you haven’t been around babies much, you may feel pretty nervous about looking after your own. What’s the cure? Experience! Parenting skills are something we learn, not something we’re born with. The more you look after your baby, the more confident you will feel. If the baby is not what you expected or hoped for – if he is premature or disabled, or even just colicky – your normal feelings of loss or anger may make it harder at first to feel close to your baby. Keep trying! Your baby and partner both need you now, and as you spend time caring for him, your love and acceptance will grow.”
The booklet stresses the value of limiting unnecessary outside commitments, spending time getting to know one’s newborn, turning to other experienced dads for support, and talking quietly in a relaxed moment with your partner about your joys, worries and frustrations.
The booklet stresses that becoming a family takes engagement and shared experience. “The big thing you and your [partner] have in common right now is this baby you have created together…If you can share this experience, you will strengthen your relationship in several ways”:
- You will understand her better
- You’ll be a team
- She will love you for it. “A father who is a good caregiver to his baby is a new mother’s best friend.”
- Parenting works best (and is the most fun) when mom and dad work as a team.
- When the inevitable challenging moments come between you, “don’t blunder in when you’re both too stressed or mad to listen to each other. Wait until things have calmed down, and then sit down together and work things through.”
- Try to schedule occasional breaks from caregiving and let a trusted friend or relative care for your child for a short time so you and your partner can have some time away from the domestic setting. But the booklet cautions: “getaways can backfire when they exceed the mother’s comfort zone for leaving the baby. Time alone is hard to find. But you can still stay close as a couple by sharing the ups and downs of new parenthood.” Suggestions include: avoiding deadlines, starting small, and taking the baby with you if necessary.