As a nurse hands a faceless sack of rice to an expectant dad, researchers take detailed notes. Does he cradle it carefully and give one of their little hands a gentle squeeze? Does he smile and let loose in some high-pitched “baby talk”? How do he and his partner interact with the faceless sack? Do they argue about whether they might be cold, or hungry? Do they seem like they’re on the same page? Do they look at and coo into this “baby’s” face at the same time? That is, do they coo into where a face would be, if the baby was an actual infant and not some weird sack?
All told, the note-taking session takes about five minutes. Months later, the researchers met with the same couples. This time, however, the faceless sack was gone, replaced by the couples’ new infant. As the now-parents interacted with their baby, the researchers spent another five minutes observing coos and couple dynamics and taking notes. While the sessions were extremely short, the researchers — who were from Ohio State University — concluded that, among other things, how dads behaved with the stand-in infant (the faceless sack) accurately predicted how they’d later behave with their real-life babies.
The test in question was known as the Prenatal Lausanne Trilogue Play method (LTP), and was developed by University of Lausanne professors Joelle Darwiche, Elisabeth Fivaz-Depeursinge, and Antoinette Corboz-Warnery to assess the “family alliance” within the father-mother-baby triad. Schoppe’s research echoed what these researchers have previously noted in more than a decade of study — that parents’ interaction with a doll in this five-minute exercise is amazingly predictive of parenting quality once their children are born.
The body of research exploring the magnitude of the transition to parenthood is growing, and particularly new is the research of what the transition is like for dads. The LTP work, in part, has helped researchers highlight an important discovery: the process of becoming parents actually begins during pregnancy.
In other words, parents are mentally building the scaffolding for how they’ll parent together long before the baby is born. Although behaviors described as “intuitive” sound pretty fixed and unchangeable, researchers are also learning that some of the indicators of positive parenting seen in these studies can, in fact, be learned or molded. The focus now, the researchers say, is to use data gleaned from the LTP to develop programs to make parents more confident and competent parents.
Parenting behavior is complex and hard to predict. Any single factor is at best only able to explain a small amount of the differences between parents in their behavior. Most attempts — by partners or experts alike — to predict what kind of parent an individual will be are based on a lot of guesswork.
This is why Sarah Schoppe-Sullivan, a professor of psychology and director of the Children and Parents Lab at the Ohio State University and Regina Kuersten-Hogan, at Assumption University in Worcester, Massachusetts, are so interested in a test like LTP. Since the test is only five minutes, it’s easy to tack onto other research she and her colleagues were already conducting and to gain a more robust idea of what a parent will be like.
“From my standpoint as a researcher, the five-minute aspect is notable or interesting just because it’s so short,” says study co-author Schloppe-Sullivan. “Like, wow, we can take this small amount of behavior with a doll and predict behavior regarding the interaction between a man and his kid a year later.”
Parents need to work together. Their ability to do so-called “family alliance” by experts — leads to good things for their kid. The way two parents are or are not able to co-parent effectively is more important to children’s well-being than even the relationship between the parents. “Coordinating while interacting and conversing with children reduces confusion and promotes a sense of security,” says Dr. Leela R. Magavi, psychiatrist and regional medical director of Community Psychiatry in Newport Beach, California. She adds that it may also expedite children’s language development as it emphasizes certain sounds and phrases in addition to associated facial expressions.
This isn’t all that surprising, but it is important to know — and hard to predict.
Joelle Darwiche’s more recent LTP studies, which combine two elements: parents’ prenatal intuitive behaviors, such as smiling at and talking directly to the baby and expressing concern for the baby’s well-being, aim to do just that. Studying first-time parents during their fifth month of pregnancy, Darwiche and her co-authors evaluated parents’ intuitive behaviors toward the doll while coordinating their interaction with each other, such as holding the doll together and both parents talking to the doll at the same time.
“Previous research had seen parents-to-be using high-pitched and rhythmic voice while interacting with a doll or holding the puppet at dialogue distance in the LTP,” Darwiche says. “We wanted to see if and how they coordinated their behaviors toward one another to get involved with the doll, or ‘future baby.’”
There’s a lot of variation in what that might look like. Some parents showed positive prenatal parenting behaviors both interacting individually with the baby (such as talking softly to the baby) and with the other parent (such as looking at the baby together). Other parents did well on their own but were unable to coordinate with the other parent. Still other parents weren’t able to show positive parenting behaviors either individually or as a co-parent.
The researchers also have seen evidence of gatekeeping — which can happen with any gender-identifying parent but is more common among mothers — in these experiments. Even if one parent is willing to engage with the baby and the other parent at the same time, the other parent might reject the effort, subconsciously or consciously, and shut out their partner. Some couples were critical of each other, with one partner, for instance, telling the other that they weren’t supporting the baby’s head properly.
There are plenty of individualistic characteristics that are just as important as how parents work together. When researchers talk about “high-quality” parenting behaviors, they mean generally positive and supportive stuff such as sensitivity and noticing and responding appropriately to babies’ signals. If babies notice something in the environment, for example, you follow their gaze, and maybe comment on it. Or if they look upset, you calm them down.
“We noted ‘positive regard,’ which is basically warmth,” Schoppe-Sullivan says. “Is dad laughing, talking, and smiling with the child?”
They also like to see an absence of detachment. “Detachment is when dad is checked out, not responding to the child,” she says. “They’re not engaged, or maybe they’re playing and so focused on the task, such as putting shapes together, that they’re not really focused on the child.”
Of course, warmth and sensitivity are also important to kids’ development.
“When the infant is well held (in a seat or in the arms), he can use all his energy to pay attention and to communicate,” says France Frascarolo-Moutinot, the retired former head of research and professor of psychiatry at Lausanne University. “One learns to communicate by practicing communication, not only by observing people communicating. In this kind of dialogue with a baby, the adult is mirroring the baby’s facial expressions and emotions, which [teaches the baby how to regulate them].”
Schoppe-Sullivan and study lead author, doctoral student Lauren Altenburger, also looked at expectant fathers’ personality traits that were associated with lower-quality parenting behaviors. Dads who were low on “conscientiousness” and low on “openness to new experiences” tended to score lower on postpartum parenting evaluations as well.
“Conscientious is the extent to which you’re goal oriented,” Schoppe-Sullivan says. “The idea is that, maybe you’re more in the mindset of what you need to do in order to be a good parent. Conscientiousness is associated with better adjustment in general. So it’s not entirely surprising.”
People who are open to experiences are essentially open-minded and tend to be inventive and imaginative. “So maybe you’re just open to parenthood, and have an easygoing attitude like, whatever happens, happens,” she says.
At this point, the LTP is just a research tool and not a test parents can take at their OB-GYN’s office. But the researchers hope their findings could contribute to the development of prenatal parenting education programs to help moms and dads-to-be become more confident in their parenting ability and learn to work together more effectively. Prenatal parenting classes and even groups for new dads — in person or online — can help increase confidence about the basics as well as comfort with the loving behaviors that help babies thrive.
“The prenatal stage is still a time when one can act calmly, whereas after the birth, there will be fatigue and stress, especially if it’s the birth of a first child,” Darwiche says.
Ideally, it would be helpful if men got more experience caring for or even being around young children and infants before they ever become parents, Schoppe-Sullivan adds.
“Anecdotally, some men are really hesitant to interact with babies, so some sort of more universal experience and guidance would go a long way,” she says.
She suspects that for a lot of dads, it’s more a fear of doing something wrong than a lack of desire or motivation.
“Some moms pick up on that hesitation, and that leads them to wanting to take over,” she says. “Increasing that confidence would be great, for both parents.”