It’s not unusual for new fathers to feel nervous that they aren’t bonding with their baby. Moms generally have biology on their side for the process of bonding and feeling attached to their newborns—first, they’ve had nine months of pregnancy to begin that process as they share one body. Then through birth, skin to skin contact, breastfeeding, and the sensitive dance of learning to respond to baby’s cues, mom and baby nurture that bond outside the womb. Dads may also have different messages from society or their own experiences that make their early involvement feel less important or less skilled than new moms, and this frame of mind is kind of self-fulfilling.
If a dad is having a hard time feeling the love for a tiny stranger, there are a couple of things that are likely to help. The first is, don’t beat yourself up about it and remember there isn’t just one way to be a great dad; bonds will form and grow and strain many times over the course of your child’s development. Be patient.
The second is, get to know your baby and put in the time you would to grow any new relationship. Here are some helpful tips on how to do that:
•Spend skin to skin time, what is referred to as “kangaroo care,” with your infant. There are numerous positive benefits to your infant’s health and biological regulation, and the tender moments with that little one on your chest will make sweet memories for you too.
•Start having those heart to hearts with the baby, even when he can’t talk back. Talking to infants stimulates their language development; the more infants hear and connect to the world around them, the better off their vocabulary, social skills, and cognitive development will be. Do this with face to face chats, and narrative play by plays as you go about your day with baby.
•Be proactive in asking your partner how you can divide up baby care responsibilities. There is a lot of attention right now on mothers feeling the weight of “mental load” in the family. New parents can try to avoid some of this uneven burden by working out a system for communicating needs and day to day responsibilities. Give yourself room to make your own approach to feeding or playing instead of feeling (or getting the message) that you have to do it just like mom.
•Do something you enjoy and find a way to incorporate your baby. For many dads, quality time can be taking a walk with baby in the carrier and telling him or her about your favorite spots. Maybe you can introduce baby to your love of cooking, or music. Sharing experiences and finding alone time to bond are helpful even when infants cannot yet respond as interactively.
•If it can be done in your family, take on some of the feedings to give your partner a break and let you in on the close contact as your baby eats. If not, try sitting with your partner during some feedings and provide moral support, a neck rub, or extra set of hands.
Bonding sets the stage for a secure attachment, one that is warm and responsive. For both moms and dads (and caregivers in any arrangement), a secure attachment that is formed in the first year or two of development helps promote a worldview for the infant that people can be trusted, the world is a place to explore and enjoy, gives them more confidence, and a host of benefits for social and cognitive development.
Lauren Knickerbocker, PhD, is a clinical assistant professor in the Department of Child and Adolescent Psychiatry at NYU Langone Health. Dr. Knickerbocker specializes in treating selective mutism and anxiety in young children, ADHD and difficulties with organization and time management, disruptive behaviors, and parent management training. She is also the co-director of Early Childhood Service at NYU Langone’s Child Study Center, a part of Hassenfeld Children’s Hospital.