By John Hoffman
One thing I will never ever forget about my early days of fatherhood was the way physical contact with my son helped me feel like a dad. Like most new parents, I found the first few days of parenthood pretty overwhelming. It was joy and amazement mixed with all sorts of anxiety, fatigue, concern about my partner and, generally, a lot of trying to figure things out.
But one thing that usually helped me feel a little more at ease was holding our baby. I'm sure it must have been a little nerve-wracking at first. You've got to figure out how to support this floppy little body that seems so vulnerable.
But, honestly, I don't have strong memories of that. My strong memories of holding Riley are mostly about feeling good. I had come to fatherhood already believing that physical contact was good for babies. But I was surprised at how good it was for me. I actually fancied that little "love chemicals" were being transferred back and forth between our two bodies as I sat there with him.
Physical contact — especially skin-to-skin — with parents is important for all babies.
Now that I know a fair bit about the brain/body science of child development and human relationships, I can see that I wasn't that far off the mark. And my sense that holding Riley had a positive biological impact on me was dead accurate. But those "love chemicals" were actually hormones. And it wasn't that they were passing between us — it was that the physical contact was stimulating my body to release hormones that help parents and babies connect.
Physical contact — especially skin-to-skin — with parents is important for all babies, but it's even more important for premature babies. Recently I read about some studies that show that skin-to-skin contact is good for dads, too.
In one study, when fathers had skin-to-skin contact with their babies for the first time, the father's blood pressure and cortisol levels dropped. Cortisol is one of the hormones that we make when we're stressed. So, in other words, holding the baby reduced the fathers' stress levels. In another study, skin-to-skin contact decreased feeling of anxiety and increased levels of oxytocin (the "love hormone") in fathers of premature babies.
Another study found positive impacts of "kangaroo care" — almost constant contact with their parents — on fathers (and mothers). We've known for a long time now that kangaroo care helps preemies to survive and thrive. This study showed that it helped their parents, too. Moms and dads who practiced kangaroo care were more sensitive to their babies and, of course, their babies were doing well.
So, if there is one single thing I encourage new fathers to do, it's hold their babies as often as possible. Obviously there's also another important person who needs and wants to hold that baby, namely Mom. And, as most fathers quickly learn, Mom and baby are usually pretty much joined at the hip. So it can be tricky for fathers to get in their holding time. And, sometimes it takes a bit of practice before you start feeling really comfortable doing it, especially if you've had very little experience with babies.
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But it's worth the effort. Physical contact with your baby — skin-to-skin, clothing-to-clothing, carrying the baby in a baby carrier, even changing diapers — is good. And it's every bit as good for you as it is for the baby.
A version of this blog originally appeared on Things Dads Do.
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