“Times are changing,” says Gladys Atawo, the manager of child health and development at Toronto Public Health. Often, when people speak of “changing times,” it implies some vaguely nostalgic pining for something that once was, but can no longer be.
In this case, though, Atawo is talking about parenting, about modernity. “Fathers are becoming more involved with caring for their children,” she says. “Fathers who are involved in caring for their children are healthier, happier, have increased self-confidence, and have a better understanding of their child’s development.”
Statistically, this is true. Research indicates our dads of today are much more involved than the fathers of yore; they’re spending three times as much time with their kids than previous generations did. Dads increasingly see themselves as playing an equally important role in raising their kids as their partners.
And, Canada’s new parental sharing benefit could see even more dads and partners take on that caregiving role.
In spite of these changing times, though, there remains a dearth of information available to help new fathers navigate the parenting world, leaving many dads feeling helpless and confused by the time the baby arrives. Support groups and new-parent activities are often aimed at moms, and dads can struggle to find their parenting village.
But many dads want to be more involved in parenting, even if they don’t have all the answers (but, does anyone?) When you type “how can dad” into Google, the top auto-completed search is “how can dads help with newborns.”
With all of this in mind, we set out to compile a set of research-backed tips to help new dads and partners navigate the newborn phase, and contribute both to their baby and their partner’s well-being.
Watch: Dads can carry their newborns in this pouch T-shirt. Story continues below.
Help with feeding
If you’re a couple that breastfeeds, Atawo says, breast milk is all the food the baby will need for about six months. “Research has shown that a father’s support is one of the more important factors in breastfeeding success,” Atawo explains.
Whether the baby is breast or bottle-fed, there are ways fathers can help to support their partner, like helping the baby latch, swaddling the baby after feeding, and sitting next to their partner, fully interested, to show they are being supportive.
Look into paternity leave options
Depending on where you live in Canada, your provincial government might have different rules about eligibility for parental leave. But fathers who take paternity leave, Atawo says, typically “gain confidence in their caring abilities, have stronger relationships with their partners, and are generally happier, healthier, and live longer.” Paternity leave can help promote positive relationship bonding with the child, and, research shows, can improve the child’s well-being later on.
Keep the communication lines open with your partner
It can sound cheesy, but communication with your partner is a key element of successfully taking care of your newborn. Research has shown relationship satisfaction can decline with the birth of a new baby. It makes sense — a baby completely changes everything for both partners in a relationship.
“Ask how they’re doing, daily. Have regular check-ins where you ask things like, “How are you feeling?” and “What can I do to help?””
Atawo says keeping an open and honest line of dialogue is a good way to be aware of your partner’s health. Talk through things before they happen. Compliment each other. Discuss mundane experiences you’ve both had with your baby — studies have found we feel closer to each other when we can talk about the experiences we have in common, and this closeness can help to be more open with one another.
Ask how they’re doing, daily. Have regular check-ins where you ask things like, “How are you feeling?” and “What can I do to help?” This gives you both room to air out your concerns and to ensure you’re resolving problems as early as possible.
Take a first-aid course for parents
There are new-parent workshop courses out there that are structured to teach essential skills on how to respond to an emergency with your newborn. Mostly, this training focuses on accident and injury prevention, first aid, water safety, choking and CPR techniques for newborns, as well as what to do in the event that there are rashes, constipation, and many other things.
Atawo suggests looking into these courses, because the knowledge is often a good, solid background that can make you feel all the more secure with making decisions and taking care of your newborn.
Help with everyday tasks
Two hands are always better than one, and more is even better than that. Being proactive and taking care of things that might not be directly related to your newborn — handling the cooking, taking up the cleaning responsibilities, handling the maintenance of the home — is a great way to ease the burden on both parents.
Sing, talk, and read to your baby
Listening to Mozart doesn’t actually make babies smarter, but singing, talking and reading to your newborn can help with early brain and language development. Babies will respond to your voice. Studies have found that vocal comfort — singing, reading — increases a baby’s attention and displays of positive emotion toward their caretaker. “You cannot spoil a baby,” says Atawo. “These are great ways to build a close connection.”
Play with your baby
It might seem obvious, but play is one of the main sources of learning, communication, and pleasure for children. Playing with your newborn helps your baby’s brain to develop, and will help teach the baby about the world around them. Remember, the first thing a baby learns is your touch, your voice, and the sight of your face. “Parents are a child’s best toy,” says Atawo.“Peek-a-boo is one of the best games for encouraging babies to take turns in conversation.”
Try out ‘wearing’ your baby
By now, you must have seen them. There are all sorts of contraptions out there that you can use to keep your baby close while enjoying the freedom of both your hands. And there are all sorts of benefits to it: it helps the baby develop balance, motor skills and mobility; it reduces the baby’s likelihood of crying; it creates a stronger bond with the baby. Slings and front packs provide a closeness you can’t get with a single arm cradle.
Consider handling early mornings or midnight wake-ups
If your partner is taking care of the baby for most of the day, they probably need any sleep they can get. Consider taking on one of the night feeds — most newborns need to eat about every three hours — so your partner can get a longer stretch of sleep before the next one. Of course, this is dependent on a number of variables: whether the baby will take a bottle, mom’s ability to pump, whether you’re on board with formula. If everything aligns, though, this can really be a life-saver for an exhausted parent.
“Sleep deprivation isn't good for anyone. Help out where you can.”
You could also take turns getting up when the baby cries in the night, or try waking up earlier to take care of baby to let your partner sleep a little longer. This is especially do-able if you’ve taken some leave or time off after the baby arrives, but may require some negotiation when you return to work.
Sleep deprivation isn’t good for anyone, and figuring out a healthy median with your partner can keep your relationship strong so you can take good care of your newborn.
Take care of yourself
There are lots of stories about women experiencing postpartum depression, but often overlooked is what’s called paternal postnatal depression (or PPND). The symptoms might be different from what mothers experience, but they still include irritability, impulsivity, and feeling unable to find pleasure in anything. New demands and new responsibilities during pregnancy and in the postpartum period can cause major changes in the father’s life, too. “Get enough sleep, eat well and exercise regularly.
Research shows that all these activities help to manage stress and promote mental wellness,” says Atawo. “If you think you may be depressed, talk to your partner and seek help from your healthcare provider.”
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