Father-child bonding should start during pregnancy

A man bonds with his child. It’s significant when it starts before the baby is born.

Photo credit: Photo I Pool

What you need to know:

  • Parent-child bonding is considered a significant factor in child development.
  • For mothers, it is assumed to be a matter of course; child clinics are still largely structured for mothers alone; a father who appears there is a curiosity.
  • Today, there is increasing attention to father-child bonding and its impact. This partly informs the granting of paid paternity leave in many countries.

Parent-child bonding is considered a significant factor in child development. For mothers, it is assumed to be a matter of course. Today, there is increasing attention to father-child bonding and its impact. This partly informs the granting of paid paternity leave in many countries.

The typical Kenyan man may treat paternity leave as just free time rather than a period to assist the wife and engage in childcare and bonding. It is for this reason that Ethiopian women opposed paternity leave, lamenting that it would increase their workload – caring for both the baby and the husband. It is only in 2017 that paternity leave was legislated in Ethiopia, at 10 days for civil servants.

Kenya’s Employment Act, 2007, provides two-week paid paternity leave. But a case was filed in court in January 2022 by Dr Magare Gikenyi arguing that this is discriminatory as the law gives men less time than women (90 days), hence reinforcing the stereotype that childcare is primarily a woman’s role. It would be interesting to see the judgment.

But the direction was evident from the initial reaction by Justice Jacob Kageri that the petition was not urgent.

A study by Ronja Schaber and colleagues in Germany, Paternal leave and father-infant bonding: Findings from the population-based cohort study DREAM, established that without considering confounding variables, the “duration of paternal leave positively predicted father-infant bonding through weekly hours spent on childcare.”

But when the confounders were added, the correlation was not significant. It, therefore, concluded that the duration of paternal leave was not “a stable predictor for father-infant bonding”, hence that even fathers who did not have such opportunities still could “form strong bonds with their infants.”

However, this does discount the value of the father’s involvement in his child’s development and the need to encourage paternity leave.

Dr Mary Beth Steinfeld, in Bonding is essential for normal infant development, avers that it is “important for fathers to bond with their babies” through “quiet time …holding them…, gazing into their eyes, talking to them and comforting them when distressed”.

A 2021 article by Dr Jennifer Lansford in Psychology Today argues that “children with sensitive and supportive fathers have higher levels of social competence and better peer relationships.”

Personal experiences reveal that a baby bonds with the father as much as it does with the mother as long as the former is constantly present, interactive and useful in the baby’s sphere.

This enables the father to learn the child’s communication style. The father will, for instance, know when the baby is hungry, wet, sleepy, happy, playful or unwell. This interaction is also immensely beneficial to the father mentally and emotionally.

Gaining trust

The baby’s chuckle is soothing and helps the father to relax. The carefree positions the baby adopts in the father’s hands demonstrate trust.

A 2016 American study, Fathers’ roles in the care and development of their children: The role of pediatricians, notes that the “the father is more likely to be the infant’s play partner [as he] tends to be more stimulating, vigorous, and arousing for the infant.”

The German study reveals that “at three years of age, father-child communication was a [more] significant and unique predictor of advanced language development in the child” than the mother’s.

Moreover, while mothers tailor word choice to the child’s known vocabulary, fathers are more adventurous and tend to introduce new words.

Bonding with fathers is reported to be significant when it starts before and continues immediately after birth. The American study avers that newborns who experienced “father skin-to-skin contact cried less, became drowsy sooner, and had less rooting, sucking, and wakefulness”.

Recent media articles have shown how fathers in western Kenya are providing skin-to-skin (called kangaroo) care for preterm babies based on the fact that such infants require this for at least 20 hours a day to generate adequate warmth to support feeding, breathing and weight gain.

Introduced in Kenya in 2014, kangaroo care is now practised in 40 counties and has debunked the notion that baby care is solely a mother’s responsibility.

Studies attribute increased uptake of baby care roles by fathers to changes in careers (more pursuing regular occupations), unemployment (more men as stay-at-home husbands) and cultural shifts (liberal attitudes towards gender division of labour).

However, old habits die hard. Child health facilities are still largely structured for mothers alone and called Maternal and Child Health rather than parental clinics.

A father who appears there is a curiosity, to the mothers, clinic staff and even himself. The sooner this changes, the better.
The necessity of father-child bonding is summed up in the Lukhonzo (Uganda) proverb: “A child may play with the father’s beard. And why not?”

The writer is an international gender and development consultant and scholar ([email protected]).


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