When we help to create a more satisfying experience for dads during the pregnancy and birth experience it flows on to a more positive effect on the entire family’s bonding.
Times have changed and dads, predominantly in Western culture, are now expected to be an active part of the birth support process and baby care. Did you know, however, that these men are still often the first, or maybe second man in their genealogy to be doing what has been traditionally women’s work? Men don’t have many stories yet to share on how they do this well.
It’s a new phenomenon in evolution that the model ‘it takes a village to raise a child’ is diminishing. The nuclear family is becoming the dominant family structure. The pressure is on dads and other mothers (non-birthing partners) to take on the primary support role for birth, breastfeeding, and caring for their newborn. The father now often takes the place of the mother, aunty, sister, etc. And the expectation is that he will learn these new skills quickly and navigate this emotional landscape well.
Our health care system, community services, family culture, and personal expectations have a way to go to fully understand what a man’s needs are as they face these changes and new responsibilities. If we care about this, and want both parents to start family life feeling more confident, informed and able to give their baby the best care possible, it would help to integrate men into family life through support, education, and guidance.
Expectant and new dads need our attention
Not only does a father have new expectations placed on him, but his family can influence him in other ways too. Their attitudes, values, knowledge, care factor, skills, and stories (or lack thereof) can influence his involvement and willingness to step up and make the necessary changes to adapt to caring for his family and himself in a healthy way.
We also need to treat with respect cultural diversity, as some cultures agree with dads supporting this integration, while others do not. Teaching the value of his active involvement and showing care for his needs can help change these beliefs, habits, and feelings to create a better outcome for the whole family.
There is a lot of growth and change necessary for all of us, and for this to happen within any of us:
- We need to feel safe in our learning environment, as change can make us feel vulnerable.
- We need inspiration and encouragement for the effort this takes.
- We need emotional support to help us feel calm and accepting of our challenges.
- We need education in a language that helps us relate to and apply new skills.
Lack of support: the downside for fathers
Sadly, when this is not happen men suffer along with their families. Dads share that they can feel overwhelmed, under prepared and lacking in support. They can also feel like a failure, alone and isolated, lacking in knowledge, not important. And feel a loss of their sense of importance, power, and control over their identity.
Unfortunately this can cascade dads into mental health problems, depression, sadness, and loss of connection with their partner and baby. Studies from Perinatal Anxiety & Depression Australia (PANDA) show that one in ten men have perinatal depression (PND). It’s a serious issue and one we need to address.
Noticing the dads
For the most part, our health care system focuses on what works for women. Rightly so, but noticing the dads and taking bigger steps to integrate them into our education classes, support groups, resources and networks, will serve us all better.
There is good evidence to support this. A variety of studies show; when supporting not only women, but also their partners – during pregnancy, labour, and breastfeeding – the outcomes are better for everyone.
Ellen D. Hodnett in Pain and women ’s satisfaction with the experience of childbirth [1 ] argues that to help a mother have a more satisfying birth experience four key factors need to be involved:
- Quality support – continuity of care.
- Trust in the care providers – team-work.
- Feeling in control – making an informed choice.
- Personal expectations – seeing the best in the situation.
The author concludes: “The influences of pain, pain relief, and intrapartum medical interventions on subsequent satisfaction are neither as obvious, as direct, nor as powerful as the influences of the attitudes and behaviours of the caregivers.”
A satisfying experience for dads
I believe that if we paid attention to how we can help dads have a satisfying experience during pregnancy, labour, and birth this can have a positive effect on them bonding to their child and connecting to their family. The hormones and emotions that bond the mother to her child are shared with the father and give him a vested interest to want to protect and support his family through breastfeeding success and newborn care. He may be more willing to adapt his needs to consider his partner and child.
In other words, a caregiver’s actions and attitudes are more powerful and more influential than pain relief or medical intervention.
The Cochrane review, Continuous support for women during childbirth , finds that we can give quality support by creating a supportive birth team. The study indicates that support from a professional birth attendant also makes a significant difference to parents’ birth satisfaction through:
- Greater maternal satisfaction.
- Increased sense of well-being and control.
- Fewer medical interventions.
- Increased chances of VBAC (vaginal birth after caesarean).
- More confident and supportive fathers.
- Better mother-intent attachment.
- Increased success in breastfeeding.
- Decreased PND.
Working as a team
Mums, dads, and caregivers can all feel more supported when working as a team. They can have a real impact on improved outcomes.
When we increase our support to include the dad during pregnancy and labour, he can feel more a part of the process. He is more likely to notice what he can do to be helpful for his partner and baby and benefit from the positive rewards for doing so.
Dr Sarah Buckley in Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing  – shows that across the continuum from pregnancy, through labour and birth and into early parenting there is a connection to hormonal physiology that supports bonding and attachment with both parents. The more engaged, informed, and supportive the dads are, the better the outcomes for mothers and babies. Other studies   have shown that “The more her partner knows about breastfeeding and is willing to help and encourage her, the more likely she will breastfeed successfully.”
We all benefit when we help parents lay strong foundations for their family life. I encourage us all to raise our awareness to the factors influencing dads’ experiences during pregnancy, birth, and early parenting. This is going to help families get off to a good start with stronger foundations to grow from. We can improve our ability to engage dads in this new space by responding from both our head and our heart with curiosity, care, compassion, and appropriate education.
Stay tuned for part two of this series coming next week.
- Ellen D. Hodnett, RN, PhD Toronto, Ontario, Canada, A systematic review: Pain and women ’s satisfaction with the experience of childbirth.
- Cochrane review: Continuous support for women during childbirth.
- Dr Sarah J. Buckley, MB, ChB, Dip Obst, Hormonal Physiology of Childbearing, Evidence and Implications for Women, Babies, and Maternity Care .
- Rempel LA, Rempel JK, 2011, The breastfeeding team: the role of involved fathers in the breastfeeding family, Journal of Human Lactation 27(2):115–121, 187–189.
- Tohotoa J, Maycock B, Hauck YL, Howat P, Burns S, Binns CW 2009, Dads make a difference: an exploratory study of paternal support for breastfeeding Perth, Western Australia, International Breastfeeding Journal 4:15.