Breastfeeding provides mothers with a singularly intimate way to bond with their babies. Fathers, unfortunately devoid of mammary glands, lack the physical tools for that sort of closeness. They are left to snuggle their way towards a bonding experience. That’s perfectly doable, but necessitates an almost aggressive approach to physical affection in early days of parenthood. More passive fathers, who sometimes end up feeling left out, have no one to blame but themselves (though they likely won’t start there).
Even without being the source of sustenance, there are countless opportunities for a father to bond with a baby, beginning almost immediately through skin-to-skin contact, which has been shown to help forge emotional bonds. The benefits of dad holding a baby while both are shirtless are myriad. Chief among them, when a dad gets his shirt off, it offers the closest approximation to breastfeeding that a dad can experience. There are also benefits to growth and intellectual development involved in simply laying shirtless with cuddling with a mostly naked baby (leave that diaper on).
“Skin to skin is one of the best forms of bonding for both mom and baby and dad and baby,” says Sarah Stampflee, assistant nurse manager at the Randall Children’s Hospital NICU in Portland, Oregon. “It is so beneficial for the baby in a holistic picture: It gets the natural flora from your skin to baby so that baby can start developing an immune system because they’re getting the good and bad floras that help them stay healthy.”
Another benefit is the promotion of digestion which strengthens healthy weight gain, overall growth, and consistent sleep patterns.
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That said, paternal bonding doesn’t ripping one’s shirt off and going full cuddle-Hulk every time closeness is desired. Any interaction between a father and a baby can serve as a bonding experience. Dads can spend tummy time teaching baby motor skills by helping reach for toys. They can read a book, or rock a baby to sleep. These positive, nurturing behaviors help forge a bond. Even simply making silly faces serves a purpose of boosting emotional connectivity and teaching nonverbal communication.
How to Physically Bond with a Baby
- Get your shirt off and put your mostly naked baby against your chest.
- If you can’t have your kid against you physically, get close, down on their level during tummy time.
- Spend time talking and being vocal during outings.
- Look for your babies cues and stop everything when they show they want to spend time with you.
“You can make anything a bonding experience. If you go for a walk in a stroller, that’s bonding, and babies know that. They like that,” says Stampflee. “The key is talking to them so they’re reassured. If they’re in a stroller facing forward, you’re talking to them, saying ‘did you see the dog,’ and you’re pointing out a dog. Some of us forget to do that because we’re so task oriented. Have a conversation, sing a song, be silly. They’re learning all of that and taking it in.”
Even the most involved father, though, should be prepared for when a child switches to “mommy mode” — that dreaded moment when a child decides he or she only wants mommy, and can’t be consoled.
“If all of a sudden, it’s a day when they only want mommy, don’t take it personally. The key is starting that bonding every day starting on day one,” says Stampflee. “If you’re consistent with your baby from the very beginning and take time every day to focus on the baby and the bond, they’ll have the expectation that you’re going to be there.” The important part, Stampflee says, is to read a baby’s signals and when he or she wants to bond, to put all other distractions aside and focus on creating a lasting connection.
“If your baby is looking at you and wants to interact, that’s time to pause your day and take 5 or 10 minutes to read a book or show them pictures,” Stampflee says.” Focus on picking up cues from your baby.”