We all want to bond with our newborn children, but sometimes it can feel harder for dads than mums. One expert explains why, and gives advice to help dads be more involved straight away.
Lynn White is a maternity coach the and founder of new maternity provider Bundle, launching this autumn. Her research into the way dads and babies bond has revealed some surprising truths. We asked her to demystify this incredible process, and give DaddiLife readers some insider insight on how we can all bond with our babies more quickly and completely.
DaddiLife (DL):You’ve been researching the baby dad bond in the first year or so of life. Why did you follow that path and what have you found out?
Lynn White (LW): My interest in it came from my own lived experience of believing that I (and I alone) was my baby’s whole world. It seemed that no matter how much I needed the help and what my well-intentioned husband tried to do to share the load, it never balanced out.
Like many people, we had gone from pregnant professionals into this beautiful chaos of having a real-life baby and we just followed what we had actually believed to be the norm – mum is all about baby for a while and that’s just the way it is. I remember my husband affectionately calling me the baby whisperer because I was the only person who could soothe our son but that was an exhausting accolade!
That remained the case when our second son was born and it wasn’t until I was pregnant with my third baby that I realised I had to understand more. Had I created this imbalance? Is it biological? Is it personality driven? Is it conditioning? Is it because I was breastfeeding? I wanted to really enjoy this baby and not just survive.
What I learnt was so freeing. The truth is that it’s all of those. We all know that there are temporary and permanent changes in the female brain during pregnancy, birth and postnatally to help baby’s development. Suffice to say, whilst my brain had been preparing itself for attachment and bonding since we’d conceived, my husband’s hadn’t. I was producing the amazing neurochemical, oxytocin. Dubbed the love hormone or social glue, it’s that feeling of CALM and CONNECTION that you get when you’re doing something you love, when you’re with someone you love. He hadn’t started to produce it in quite the same way.
His oxytocin would rise with caregiving and closeness with our baby. But here’s the thing, testosterone inhibits oxytocin and guess what men produce more of when a baby is born….yep, you got it – testosterone. Hunter gatherer is not a myth! It’s a biological fact.
There are actually areas of a man’s brain that we call the default mode network. It only switches on when he switches off from the outside world but in the dads of newborns, it barely switches on at all because dad is so vigilant against the outside world. It’s only once baby reaches about four or five months and life has settled somewhat that Dad relaxes a bit more and the oxytocin can flow more easily.
DL: What implications do your findings have for the traditional view of how dads bond with their babies?
LW: Well, knowing that, here are the take-outs that we lived by for baby three, and that I have brought into play with Bundle:
- It would be easy to sit back and say “oh us dads don’t peak till month 5” and let mum do all the work. Don’t do that! There are massive benefits for everyone (especially baby) in shared caregiving.
- Dads can bond from pregnancy. At 26 weeks, baby knows your voice and when baby is born, skin to skin with you can also soothe baby. You matter!
- Shared caregiving increases oxytocin (your bonding hormone). Although your desire to protect might occasionally make you feel less connected, you can reignite it.
- You can protect your own oxytocin by understanding more about the fourth trimester and guarding it.
- Bathe your baby, change nappies, wear your baby in a sling (get advice on this!), talk, sing, make funny faces.
- You’re all learning together.
- Be involved, don’t get left behind.
DL: Could you give us three pieces of advice for dads who feel they are struggling to bond with their newborn babies?
LW: Being involved is step one but let’s go deeper than that.
Firstly, how are you looking after yourself? You can’t bond, feel calm and connected or boost that oxytocin if you’re feeling really tense. If you’re operating at a really fast level and not getting enough (any!) rest, then you can’t even begin to get close. Hopefully you’re trying to do your best to look after mum’s wellbeing and that is invaluable but you have to take that time out for yourself too. The basics: Nutrition, Exercise, Sleep, Talk.
Secondly, how is your partner feeling? Does she appear to be calm and connected? Is there any possibility that she’s struggling and going into hypervigilant mode, believing she has to be everything to your baby lest someone think she can’t cope? Tiredness and the reality of the early days of motherhood can often make a mum feel a bit at sea, like she’s playing Whack a Mole to keep it all in check. That can sometimes make it hard to help. If that’s the case, give her more TLC and let her know what a great job she’s doing and gently try to lower the blockade.
Thirdly, reflect. How are you feeling about this big change in your life? This covers a lot of stuff – the birth, the responsibility, the change in your identity, the permanence and there might even be things from your own past experiences that have popped up unexpectedly. In the words of Yoda, “power in talking there is”. Be careful who you share your concerns with. A good friend who has been there is a great port of call. There are also lots of brilliant online and phone services that you could grab some time with. Or get chatting with other Daddilife members. You won’t be alone!
In the words of Yoda, “power in talking there is”.
DL: Are there any other common areas of the first year of fatherhood that need to be ‘de-mythed’?
LW: If mum is breastfeeding, you can still show some solidarity at night.
Mum needs about five hours undisturbed sleep to stay on an even keel of some sort. That might mean letting her go to bed straight after feeding and you take over the burping and resettling then maybe giving baby an expressed feed. Find a way that works for you both and your feeding choices but breastfeeding doesn’t push you out of the picture.
It can be hard to be the new dad in the workplace. You might feel a sense of self awareness and split loyalty. You want to head home at 5pm but you don’t want it to look like fatherhood changed you. It’s time to let dads celebrate this chapter in their life. Your brain has grown through that first year too if you’ve been involved in your baby’s care. That can make you more productive, more motivated, more focused, more effective. Don’t be afraid to own that growth and still have a work/life balance.
DL: We found last year that for some dads, particularly those employed in the gig economy, that even statutory paternity leave is becoming harder and harder. What’s your view on how paternity policies may need to change?
LW: I think that policymakers and businesses really need to see the bigger picture here.
If self-employed dads or those who don’t qualify with their employers aren’t taking time off, it’s not just at the expense of an experience. Their baby misses out on valuable bonding time that has proven neurological benefits and their partner will miss out on valuable support which could also, in turn, cost the NHS more and impact her future contribution to the economy.
It’s also interesting that shared parental leave has had a really low uptake. Of course, there are lots of reasons for that.
One of the main ones is the culture mismatch between what’s on offer and what is considered career damaging or enhancing by the employer. That’s the responsibility of the employer to really understand the benefits of shared parental leave for their employee, not just as a tick-box exercise, and to make the culture conducive to that by celebrating success stories.
For many mums, shared parental leave means giving baby over to their partner at a time when they have just got into a routine. She may well feel like she’s done all the hard graft of the lonely days only to miss out on the honeymoon. We need to do a much better job for women pre and postnatally so that they can enjoy each day of motherhood, not just wait for the crappy bits to pass.
Bundle is a new maternity provider launching this autumn. You can follow Lynn’s journey on LinkedIn