Infant Mental Health Week: Let's hear it for Dads! You are important too!

Australian Infant Mental Health Awareness Week 12-16 June 2017

seeks to promote the importance of infant mental health and the early years of a child's life.

The study of Infant Mental Health is such a crucial and significant area where early development is concerned, and I might argue, that this process starts in utero.  There is a whole body of theory and research that documents this clearly and gives us more knowledge in the current generation than our fathers (and mothers) before us had access to.  So, given that it's Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, I reckon it is more than an appropriate time to feature a post that speaks to a subject that might stir traditional views of a particular area of caregiving - Dads and caregiving!

Many men and women believe that the responsibility falls in the hands of mums for the caregiving of one's offspring, but there's been large shifts in that understanding over the last few decades, in particular our Asian context.  Whilst we ought to recognise that this is a huge paradigm shift, we cannot ignore the research that suggest fathers have a big (and uniquely different) role when it comes to parenting and caregiving.  It might be good to point out at this juncture that the fathering role is good for men's psychological health and vice versa.  This means strong emotional bonds and healthy dynamics are forged in the process.

Good mental health begins in early childhood. When a baby has the opportunity to form a secure bond with their parent or caregiver, this can support their potential and ability to form healthy relationships throughout life.”
— Clair Rees, Parent Infant Partnership (PIP) UK

For instance, fathers have a crucial role in playing a male role model in one's family nucleus, and this has varied functions for the psychological development of an infant.  The infant learns to relate to a male object who quite literally sounds and smells different, and is differentiated from mum, a female object, who also has a very different caring role to dad.  Of course we can't expect dads to satisfy the caring role like breastfeeding (although we can always pick up a bottle, and the Japanese had created interesting breastfeeding devices for men!), we can always nurture and provide in different but significant ways.  And these would mean a great deal to your little bub.

Well, as they say, sometimes the soul is willing, but the mind is not.  What I mean is that many fathers do not take to fathering as readily or know very much about what to do.  And hey! Us dads never start off knowing what to do...but what I've found in my clinical work with clients and families is that sometimes fathers fear making mistakes so much, that they are paralysed in their attempts to be more present and enjoy the parent bonding process with their little one.  So, just give it a go, you might learn a thing or two, and it's not as terrible or bad as you may think!  Also, let's not be too hard on ourselves in the process.  Any attempt at connecting with your little squirtle just means you're making progress already!

So here's some references to assist us Dads to be more informed and catalyse our efforts at being bigger, stronger, wiser and kind to our kids:

1.    Informed by research - Dad's involvement with baby early on associated with boost in mental development

2.    Tips on how to communicate with your baby - The Story About Men and Babies


For more on Infant Mental Health, check out the Australian Association for Infant Mental Health Inc.