How fathers can play a vital role in helping their young children to develop

Father And Baby 1

Child nutrition (Early years), Childcare, Early childhood development, ​Learning through play (Early years)

A dad's interactions with their infant or young child can have a significant impact, according to early childhood development experts.

Young children whose fathers are involved in their upbringing often have a better outcome in life.

In fact, studies show that babies whose dads are “hands on” and “fun” actually learn faster. But in many countries and cultures, raising children is still looked on as being a mother’s job.

“Research suggests that when children positively interact with their fathers, they have better psychological health, self-esteem and life-satisfaction in the long term,” said Eduardo Garcia Rolland, UNICEF Early Childhood Development Specialist.

“In countries across the world, many families are aware of the importance of shared responsibilities while raising young children.

“But there is still much work to be done to overcome persistent academic, cultural and social biases and stereotypes against men. Those biases marginalise fathers and are an obstacle for children’s development.”

The first five years of a child’s life are the most critical to their future development. Theirworld has been campaigning for countries and donors to invest in early childhood development.

Two studies – both published in the journal Infant Mental Health – have pointed to the benefits of a father’s involvement in their child’s early development.

The most recent came from Curtin University’s School of Nursing in Western Australia. It found that a father’s bond with a baby can have a greater influence on the wellbeing of the whole family than the mother’s.

Asked about the findings, Caroline Zanetti – perinatal, infant and child psychiatrist at the Elizabeth Clinic – told Perth Now: “Everybody is aware of the importance of the mother as a primary caregiver – but it’s also important to know a father can make a real difference to a baby’s development.

“Between the two, the parents make a healthy whole for their children.”

In the United Kingdom, a team discovered the scientific benefits of men being heavily involved in the early years.

Parent Peter Mwangi Kenya

Peter takes his child to Esther’s Day Care because of the clean environment and reliable staff (Esther’s Day Care)

Researchers from Imperial College London, King’s College London and Oxford University said their findings show that early paternal involvement is linked to babies learning faster.

The study, published earlier this year, looked at how fathers interacted with their babies at three months and measured the infants’ cognitive development more than a year later.

They said the signs could be seen from as early as three months. The study said there was “compelling support” for the importance of a mother’s impact on a child’s development – but now there was more interest in father-infant interactions.

Professor Paul Ramchandani, from the Department of Medicine at Imperial, who led the research, said: “Even as early as three months, these father-child interactions can positively predict cognitive development almost two years later, so there’s something probably quite meaningful for later development – and that really hasn’t been shown much before.”

In another study, fathers’ increased involvement with caregiving was linked to a decreased likelihood that their children would become obese between the ages of two and four, Science Daily reported.

There is a lack of understanding of the benefits of co-parenting and the importance of fathers’ role in the development of children’s brains. Eduardo Garcia Rolland, UNICEF Early Childhood Development Specialist

“There is growing evidence of the importance of fathers’ involvement in raising children in other areas of children’s development – and our study suggests that there may be benefits to child health as well,” said Dr Michelle Wong, lead author of the Obesity study. 

In the summer, UNICEF launched its Super Dads initiative to celebrate fatherhood as part of its early childhood development campaign.

UNICEF’s Eduardo Rolland said: “There are many benefits for the children – but also spouses, the couples themselves and the whole family when male figures are highly involved in the function of parenting. 

“There is a lack of understanding of the benefits of co-parenting and the importance of fathers’ role in the development of children’s brains.

“We hope this campaign will help to see greater engagement from fathers, and inspire governments, businesses and communities to breakdown societal, cultural and employment barriers that currently prevent fathers from playing a more active role in their children’s development.”

Dad And Baby 2

Positive interactions with fathers can lead to better psychological health in children (Andrew Branch)

The importance of having a positive male influence in a young child’s life is being embraced by many developing countries.

“There are traditional biases against fathers’ involvement in child care that are still present in different cultures and households in every country,” said Rolland.

“Men were traditionally excluded from the small and big tasks such as feeding, playing, washing, reading and talking that contribute to a child’s ability to build positive attachments with adults.”

During a Theirworld series on early childhood caregivers, we spoke to two fathers in Kenya.

Peter Mwangi, who has three children, said: “Men need to be more involved in their children’s lives. Seminars need to be held for fathers to be taught how best to raise children and be more involved.”

Peter Mayienga said: “Most of the time you will find the mother is the one bringing the children. Men say they are busy. 

“However, I would like to tell men that they need to work hand in hand with their partners.” 

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