In short, fatherhood is hot, and so is the science behind it. Researchers say men are biologically wired to be fathers — and children are innately and uniquely responsive to their fathers. This has enormous implications for the health of children, mothers and fathers themselves.
Recent research finds that involved dads improve pregnancy outcomes, foster babies’ sleep, help build children’s language skills and reduce teens’ risk of self-damaging behavior.
“The importance of fathers equals that of mothers,” Raymond Levy, director of the three-year-old Fatherhood Project at Massachusetts General Hospital, says. “If fathers understand the emotions and needs of their infants, that fosters brain development and more complex neural circuits.”
And today’s fathers are eager to be more involved, according to a recent unpublished survey of 401 men interviewed in MGH’s obstetrics unit. Most respondents said they want more education about their role during pregnancy and early infancy, and six in 10 want more skills to support their partners.
All this is a conceptual sea change. For decades — no, for millennia — fathers were seen as secondary to mothers in the business of raising children. Necessary for conception, but bystanders during pregnancy and ancillary at best in infant care. Society viewed dads mainly as economic providers. Disciplinarians, as in “just wait ‘til your father gets home.” Emotional cripples — distant if not abusive….
The benefits of dads’ early and continuing engagement with parenting are increasingly well-documented. Here are some findings you might not be aware of:
- Fathers’ involvement in their partners’ pregnancy leads to fewer premature births, low birthweight babies and less infant mortality, possibly because it reduces maternal stress.
- Newborns whose fathers are intimately involved in their care — researchers call it “skin-to-skin care” — cry less, become drowsy sooner and sleep better.
- Even though mothers are critical in children’s language development, fathers’ involvement leads to more advanced language development and richer vocabulary, possibly because fathers are more likely to introduce new words, while mothers use words they know the child is likely to understand.
- Early father involvement is linked to lower risk of mental health problems when their children reach age 9.
- Adolescents with nurturing, non-authoritarian fathers are less likely to engage in substance abuse and other risky behaviors, and their daughters are less likely to have early puberty and teen pregnancies.
Yogman stresses that the children of single moms and double-mom families don’t necessarily have a disadvantage.