Parenting Resources

How Dads Affect Child Health Pre- and Post-Natal

Since 1973, when Jones and Smith published their article in The Lancet describing the effects of maternal alcohol consumption on the health and development of their unborn children, women have been warned to avoid alcohol when they are pregnant or anticipating pregnancy.  Jones, Kenneth L., and David W. Smith. “Recognition of the Fetal Alcohol Syndrome in Early Infancy,” The Lancet 2 (1973): 999–1001.

Women have also been advised to follow a healthy life style during pregnancy in order to assure the optimal well being of their unborn children.

Now research demonstrates the importance of paternal health on the unborn.

Dr. Joanna Kitlinska and her colleagues reviewed scientific literature and reported the effects fathers’ behaviors and lifestyle can have on their children.  

  1. The researchers found that a father’s advanced age at his child’s conception is correlated with higher rates of schizophrenia, autism, and birth defects.  

  2. In addition paternal obesity is associated with changes in his child including enlarged fat cells, diabetes, and obesity.  

  3. There was even an association between fathers’ alcohol use and evidence of fetal alcohol spectrum disorder in their children.   Day J, Savani S, Krempley BD, Nguyen M, Kitlinska JB. Influence of paternal preconception exposures on their offspring: through epigenetics to phenotype. Am J Stem Cells, 2016;5(1):11-18.

Fathers are intricately linked with their babies and mothers and even experience hormonal changes postpartum.  

A study followed 149 couples in Illinois from the time of their babies’ births until 9 months post partum. The researchers found that fathers who described themselves as being in a good relationship with their partners had testosterone levels that decreased after their children’s births.  This correlated with fewer depressive symptoms in the mothers but more depressive symptoms in the fathers.

However, fathers whose testosterone levels did not decrease after their babies’ births demonstrated more aggressive behaviors against their partners, and their partners had more symptoms of post-partum depression.  This research indicates that fathers can also experience post-partum depression due to hormonal changes, but the lower testosterone levels prime the father to interact more lovingly with his partner and child.   Darby E. Saxbe, Christine Dunkel Schetter, Clarissa D. Simon, Emma K. Adam, Madeleine U. Shalowitz. High paternal testosterone may protect against postpartum depressive symptoms in fathers, but confer risk to mothers and children. Hormones and Behavior, 2017; 95: 103 DOI: 10.1016/j.yhbeh.2017.07.014

Fathers often feel unnecessary to the care of their newborn and wonder how they can contribute.  They may not recognize the importance of physical touch in their bonding and attachment to their babies.

Several studies investigated the effects of physical touch on father-child bonding and attachment.  Fathers appeared to have improved attachment with their infants when they had early skin-to-skin contact as is encouraged for mothers.  Chen EM, Gau ML, et al.  Effects of Father-Neonate Skin-to-Skin Contact on Attachment:  A Randomized Controlled Trial.  Nursing Research and Practice. 2017; Article ID 8612024, 8 pages

Another small study found that paternal stress was decreased in those fathers who had been taught to massage their infants.  Cheng CD, Volk AA, Marini ZA.  Supporting Fathering Through Infant Massage.  J Perinatal Educ.  2011;  Fall;  20(4):200-209.

  • Fathers play differently with their children – often in a more stimulating, active manner – than do mothers. This is felt to help children learn how to modulate and regulate their behaviors.
  • Fathers often encourage more independent and exploratory behaviors so their children are more comfortable investigating their environment which is crucial for infant and toddler learning.
  • Most importantly, fathers impact their children’s emotional, physical, and intellectual well being.

The US HHS 2006 report on The Importance of Fathers in the Healthy Development of Children states, “Even from birth, children who have an involved father are more likely to be emotionally secure, be confident to explore their surroundings, and, as they grow older, have better social connections with peers.”  

 So – what can we do?

  1. For couples who are anticipating pregnancy, both mother AND father should make any changes necessary to live a health life style, including losing weight, avoiding drugs, alcohol, and cigarettes, and exercising.

  2. Acknowledge that fathers can experience post-partum depression.  Simply understanding this is a possibility may be beneficial, but  fathers may also be helped by therapy or support groups.

  3. Fathers who have their testosterone tested ‘postpartum’ and are told their levels are low do not need supplementation.  In fact, supplementation may interfere with the men’s ability to parent and interact appropriately with his child and child’s mother.

  4. Encourage fathers to interact with their newborns as early and often as possible, especially via the physical sensation of touch. Fathers can hold their infants skin-to-skin and can provide infant massage.

  5. Mothers, don’t become upset or fearful when you see your child’s father playing ‘energetically’ or ‘rough housing’ with your toddler.  Remind yourself that this play is important to your child’s learning.

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