During pregnancy, a lot of attention is naturally paid to the birth parent. As a new dad or partner, it is easy to feel your involvement doesn't matter. Nothing, however, could be further from the truth.
Research shows that the presence of an involved father during pregnancy reduces rates of premature birth and infant mortality, for example. Mothers-to-be with involved fathers are 50% more likely to receive appropriate medical care during pregnancy. And mothers-to-be who were smokers when they became pregnant are 36% more likely to quit smoking when fathers are supportive.
In addition, a recent study in Pediatrics found that dads can make a big difference in whether an infant is breastfed and placed to sleep safely.
Preparing for your baby's arrival
While waiting for the baby to arrive, there's plenty to do beyond shopping for cribs and car safety seats. Dads and partners can take an active role in touring the birth hospital, choosing a pediatrician, helping the pregnant partner make a birth plan and accompanying them to birthing and breastfeeding classes.
The father or partner can also be a great birth coach. They can help the birthing parent with breathing and positioning during labor while paying attention to the signals they're giving about how much help they want from moment to moment.
Skin-to-skin or "kangaroo" care
As soon as the baby is born, fathers and partners can play an important role in skin-to-skin "kangaroo care" for the newborn. Ideally, the baby will go to their mother's chest as soon as possible to begin nursing. But not all situations are ideal, and if the mother requires medical attention, the father's may be the first chest the baby feels.
Compared to newborns in bassinets in the first two hours after birth, a baby placed on their father's chest cries less, falls asleep sooner and shows less agitation. But whatever the situation, the mother will need care, and fathers have a chance to enjoy the closeness of their new baby while skin-to-skin.
In the event the newborn is in the neonatal intensive care unit (NICU), the father's role may become even more important. Among preterm infants in the NICU, babies with more involved fathers had better development at 3 years of age.
Breastfeeding & nighttime care
While fathers and partners may not be able to breastfeed, their involvement makes a huge difference in the success of nursing. Be available to bring the baby to the mother and help her with positioning.
Pro tip: Nursing a baby makes mothers very thirsty, so bringing them a glass of water can make you their hero. When the feeding is complete, change the baby's diaper and ensure they return safely to their crib or bassinet.
Sleep deprivation is inevitable with a new baby, but fathers and partners can help here, too. Take shifts with diaper changes, feedings (if bottle-feeding), and rocking and calming the newborn. Even just a few extra hours in bed can help parents cope better with the stresses of new parenthood.
In the weeks and months after the baby is born, pay attention to the household moods. Fathers and partners are in an excellent position to notice signs of a mother's postpartum depression and guide them to help.
Fathers and partners, however, can also suffer from postpartum depression. We now know that fathers undergo hormonal changes, too, and sharing in the stress and sleep deprivation can further affect mood. A father's depression can affect outcomes for mother and baby, so be proactive about seeking help if you feel unusually down.
(See "Perinatal Depression in Partners: Can Both Parents Get the 'Baby Blues?")
Putting effort into helping the mother adjust to having a baby will help both parents overcome the stress and fatigue of this enormous life change. Make time for cuddling, snuggling, massage and activities that contribute to a strong and loving bond. Most obstetricians recommend women wait a minimum of six weeks after giving birth before resuming vaginal intercourse.
Many employers in the United States have been slow to adopt generous paternity leave policies, but that trend is changing. Taking time off in the first weeks or months can help lay a foundation for the baby's health and development for years to come. Fathers should ask their employer about taking time for their baby's medical care. Dads' involvement in their children's healthcare has been linked to children's improved compliance with treatment, better psychological adjustment and superior overall health status.
Playing with your baby
As children grow and develop, partners' strengths often complement each other. Generally speaking, playtime with fathers tends to be more intense and exploratory. The stimulating, vigorous activity fathers encourage can help children build independence. Children with involved fathers develop better language skills and enjoy overall better mental health than children whose fathers are less involved.
Having a baby is arguably the biggest challenge for anyone, but also the most rewarding. No one feels quite ready for it, and no one is ever truly sure they're doing it right. But fathers and partners should never think they do not matter. Your baby needs you now and for their whole lives.