Bonding Tips for New Dads
One dad's take on bonding with a newborn
Less Is Sometimes More
Just over 15 months ago I sat in a maternity ward room, gazing into the murky newborn eyes of our daughter Alexis. My wife Leah was downstairs in surgery, getting stitched up after an emergency C-section. Even though I wish the circumstances had been different, it did feel like a privilege to be Alexis’s first sustained human contact with the world.
Her toes were tiny versions of mine. The groove between the middle of her nose and upper lip matched mine, too. She whimpered; I rocked her and whispered, and she stopped crying. At one-half hour old, she knew exactly what to do to assuage my new-father fears. I was hooked.
Not too long ago, I once again peered over a sterile green sheet to see the doctor lift another baby, our son Tyler, out of Leah’s reopened Cesarean scar. This time Leah wanted to hold the baby skin-to-skin before he and I left the operating room, but the midwife in charge noticed Tyler’s nostrils flaring and decided that he needed a few hours in the newborn observation unit.
Soon Tyler’s breathing stabilized, and while he and I waited for Leah’s spinal block to wear off, one of the attending midwives had me hold my son skin-to-skin and put my finger in his mouth so he’d at least begin sucking on some appendage of someone related to him.
I tell these stories because they illustrate important points about fathers bonding with newborns. First, the initial bonding opportunity between newborns and parents (mom and/or dad) can still happen despite adverse circumstances. Second, bonding is not complicated. In fact, many fathers need to be doing less, not more, when they interact with their child.
Why Bonding Can Be Difficult for New Dads
A perfect example of why guys can find it difficult to bond with newborns is found in Gary Greenberg and Jeanine Hayden’s truly helpful (and genuinely funny) fathering manual Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads. In the section covering the newborn’s first week, an illustration shows three men huddled over a video camera’s viewing screen, smiling, and pointing at the proud dad’s family footage. Five feet away from them, lying on a blanket and wearing nothing but a diaper, is the recent addition in question. The caption reads, “Your buddies will all be enthralled by your new baby.”
This picture reveals an often-overlooked obstacle to father-bonding: dads can get distracted from direct involvement with their kids by their well-intentioned use of objects designed to facilitate that involvement.
Similarly, many times as I’ve helped Alexis play with her blocks and books and puzzles I eventually realize that I’ve begun playing with them on my own, and that she’s rummaging around for something else to do. Or, I’ll be dozing or daydreaming while holding her and will not have noticed that she’s finished drinking her bottle and is squirting the residual milk on the sofa.
I’m sure not all guys are as distractible as I am, but many face the same challenge of not getting much of a learning curve when it comes to taking care of the baby. Fathering guru Armin Brott points this out in his book The Expectant Father: Advice and Tips for New Dads. He describes a common scenario: the dad picks up his baby to change his diaper, and when the baby starts to cry, the mom steps in and says, “Here, let me do it.” What men need to do, Brott counsels, is arrange with their partners not to take over for them if they start struggling with the child. In fact, Brott cites research showing that parenting involves more behavior that is learned than innate, which means that mothers and fathers alike have to learn to become parents—it’s just that mothers typically get much more practice. Below are some entry-level things guys can do to develop their parental sides and facilitate bonding.
Physical Contact: The Key Ingredient
With babies, especially newborns, bonding happens mainly through physical communication—the senses of touch and smell. Let your baby get to know you by:
- Giving baths and baby massages
- Burping the baby
- Reading aloud or singing. Even though your baby can’t understand your words, he or she can recognize and be comforted by your voice.
- Including the baby in your daily relaxation. For example, an infant can find Dad’s reading fascinating—whether it be Sports Illustrated or Newsweek. He or she will enjoy evening or morning walks together, too.
Besides these practical tasks, I’ve found a bonding technique that keeps me engaged: nuzzling. Holding my daughter as she drinks her morning bottle or burping my son after he feeds, I gently draw my lips, nose, and cheeks across the top of her or his head. There’s nothing like the skin texture and smell of babies (two ways they trick us to attach to them), and nuzzling soothes the child at the same time. When I think of what bonding looks like, I see myself sitting on a sofa an hour or two before dawn, eyes closed, nuzzling my son back to sleep. This image also helps explain what bonding feels like: a contented, peaceful exhaustion, at the center of which is the warmth between you and your child. You let yourself feel that physical warmth and it spreads to your insides, and then everyone and everything else in life recedes for five or ten precious minutes.
Of course, nuzzling isn’t the only way to bond. Newborns also can respond favorably to the sound of voices. Maintaining a dialogue—even a rambling, repetitive one—is something my wife has encouraged me to do with Alexis. Her rationale is to facilitate Alexis’s language development, but the practice has also been good for my parental development. When I’m especially preoccupied with a work project, talking to Alexis helps me stay attuned to her needs—and aware of any potential dangers in what she’s doing.
Routines and Rituals
A sure way to improve bonding opportunities is to develop a family routine. For two-parent families, this means designating who will take care of the child at which times. For example, my wife and I both spend from 5 PM to 8 PM feeding and getting the kids to bed. Then I’m on child duty from 8 PM to midnight; Leah takes the midnight-to-4 AM shift, and I resume with the 4 AM to 7:30 AM shift. Because I know in advance when I’m going to be feeding each child, Leah and I don’t argue about whose turn it is and consequently we don’t have to battle frustration and resentment as well as fatigue to feel close to our kids.
The feeding duties are also bonding moments because they’ve become rituals. I hold Alexis the same way on the same couch as she drinks the same amount of the same kind of milk—and rather than boring us both to death, something in the repetition gives the experience much more significance than just feeding. I actually look forward to it (almost) every morning.
Finding What Works
While nuzzling and routines are what work for me and my kids, every dad—and every child—is different, and so really, the best advice I can give is for dads to find what works for them by trial and error. From a biological perspective, the purpose of bonding is to ensure that parents look after their children. Now, this probably isn’t a conclusion supported by scientific research, but if you’re wondering whether you’ve truly bonded with your child or not, ask yourself if you could get up several times a night for several straight months to feed, change, comfort, and clean up the vomit of anyone else’s kids. Bonding helps you do all that and more: It gives you the feeling, time and time again, that all those unpleasantries are worth it.
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