As a first-time dad, Ken Phelan was taken aback by the many challenges that come along with a newborn. He was also unsure about how to connect with his son.
FOR many an expectant father, there is nothing quite so daunting or terrifying as the prospect of fatherhood.
Even for those fathers who have borne witness to the miracle of birth, life thereafter may appear as one long interminable challenge.
As a first-time dad, sleepless nights, nappy changes, feeding problems, and endless demands will all take their toll on your weary mind.
To add to your dismay, you discover that these disruptions are not conducive to a full and satisfying love life, and so resign yourself to a period of reluctant abstinence.
The moment my son was brought kicking and screaming from the delivery room, there was a palpable sense that life would simply never be quite the same again.
While mum had taken an immediate shine to the new arrival, I regarded him with suspicion and fear.
This was the burden of fatherhood, the knowledge I held not one iota of maternal instinct, not one drop of oxytocin in my body, and that I would in all likelihood never bear milk.
And so, as I sullenly left the maternity ward, one question pervaded my fevered mind: “How do I bond with baby?”
For me, bonding was difficult.
With newborns, I reminded myself, the primary bond is between mother and child; so it seemed inevitable and somewhat fitting that I felt left out.
Despite feeling overjoyed at the birth of my first child, this was regrettably overshadowed by feelings of helplessness and inadequacy.
Simple things like nappy changes, bottle feeds, and even holding the baby instilled apprehension and fear, especially since I had not cared for children before.
For many men, like myself, the reality of being a parent doesn’t dawn until baby is born. But, according to psychologist Dr David Carey, the opportunity to bond with baby starts long before birth.
“Fathers should be involved with baby even before birth by looking after their partners and seeing they feel loved, protected, and cherished as well as physically safe,” he says.
Carey believes there is no reason why a father should face difficulties bonding with his newborn, citing work commitments as perhaps the only impediment. He also believes there is no need for dads to feel inadequate in their role.
“Men do not face any significant difficulties bonding with their infant children. The only matter of possible difficulty is the interference of work and commuting hours which tend to mean far too many men get home after their babies have been put to bed,” he says.
“It is only natural for the mother’s sole attention to be on the newborn baby. This is a matter of survival for many infants. Men can’t breastfeed.”
Self-confidence can make all the difference, he adds: “A man with intact self-esteem will not feel left out, particularly if he takes time to help his partner with childcare responsibilities.”
Research shows that the only difference between father and mother role is in physical play.
“Fathers play more vigorously with their children than do mothers,” says Carey.
“It’s important to remember that the paternal role is influential throughout the lifespan of the child.”
For many men, day-to-day activities in baby’s care will be alien. In my case, for example, the prospect of changing nappies was akin to having my teeth pulled.
Apart from assisting in these decidedly challenging activities, how else can dad bond with baby?
“Dads should play with baby, hold baby, sing to baby, cuddle baby, feed and change baby,” says Carey.
“Feeding and changing baby is part of the attachment and bonding process. Skin-to-skin contact is part of what is called the somatosensory bath of children.
The skin is the human body’s largest organ and touch is important to the attachment and bonding process. All babies should be held, cuddled, rocked, and touched by both mother and father.
“Remember, being a father is a natural process. There is no need to pressurise yourself into it. We tend to be a parent based on how we ourselves were parented so that our own early life experiences can be influential”.
From my own experience of early fatherhood, bonding with baby also means bonding with mum and the consolidation of the family unit as a whole.
Despite my own fears and apprehensions, I soon discovered that even I had the natural ability to bond. The key, it seemed, was simply to become a part of baby’s life.
As I soon learned, it is exactly in times of uncertainty to become actively involved with your baby, to simply love and hold him, feed and change him, and bonding.
The hitherto mourned loss of ‘independence’ was supplanted with the knowledge that I was the parent of a loving, dependent, and innocent child.
That said, friends with older children tell me that all will change when the teenage years come around — it’s then when bonds become tenuous and you begin to lament the days of nappy changes and sleepless nights.
Tips for dad
* Get involved: Bottle feeds, nappy-changes, holding baby, dressing baby. Anything involving physical contact.
* Read aloud: The baby may not understand the words but she will gain comfort and reassurance from your voice. Story time can be a great bonding experience for baby and parent alike.
* Play games: Interaction during playtime is very important in establishing a relationship between parent and child, as well as helping baby’s emotional and cognitive growth.
* Sing, talk: Any verbal communication can be comforting and stimulating for baby, and help to establish a bond with mum and dad.
* Make yourself available: Don’t let mum do all the hard work. If possible, change work commitments to better suit family needs.
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