People used to think that baby's first few weeks, (or months, or years) didn't really matter. I mean, we don't have memories from that time so it may as well not matter, right? WRONG. The first three years of human life are critical in the overall development of the brain, and that includes functions like regulation, delayed gratification, self-soothing, and emotional bonding or relationship building skills. The time you spend with your newborn, small baby, and toddler really do matter. Even if they can't remember it, you can. And their little brains are growing with your precious input.
Many fathers struggle in the first few months and years of their small child's life. For most fathers, having children is the first experience they have to be caregivers. The learning curve can be steep. But the work invested will pay off for years down the road as you lay down the foundation of your relationship with your child.
And you're also not alone. Many fathers feel as you do; under-prepared, judged, and not quite enough. The important thing to remember is: you are enough. And your children (and your partner) need you. Not just your wallet, but your time and your attention. So let's lay out seven ways to bond with your baby:
1. Spend quality time with baby: Spend one on one time with baby, even if it's only for a few minutes. Maybe mom can go to the store, run an errand, work out, or just take a nap. But practice spending unassisted time with your baby, because every time you do you're adding hours to your practice log. It takes a lot of time and effort to learn parenting skills. And the only way to get that practice is to take advantage of and create opportunities for you to do it on your own. Start small and work your way up to more and more time. I bet you'll find that this time is really special for you and baby. You'll get to know each other in a different way. Whenever possible, build this into a routine so that your one on one time is scheduled and predictable. Doing this increases the chance of consistency.
2. Wear your baby: Seriously, even if your partner loves wearing baby. Even if baby fusses a little getting into the wrap on another body, practice wearing your baby. Babies LOVE* to be close to their humans (*some babies are sensory sensitive and need more space) and being wrapped up all snuggly and safe feels so good to babies (and to parents). Many mothers wear their babies when doing errands or when they are out and about. Fathers can also wear babies (why not?!) and enjoy providing physical comfort, a sense of safety and security to their babies.
3. Care for baby: Learn how to change diapers, feed baby, bathe baby, get baby dressed, burp baby, all the things that baby needs to be comfortable and cared for. Many fathers miss out on opportunities to do this (or they don't really want to, cause let's be real...who WANTS to change diapers all the time...or ever...). But these moments really matter. The way you care for baby, the way you hold her, move his body around, look into her eyes, handle his fuss matter. These are natural opportunities for you to send loving messages to your baby: I am your parent. I will always take care of you. You are my joy. Small moments matter. Especially the small moments that happen often.
4. Play with baby: Fathers tend to play with babies in different ways. Most notably, fathers tend to play more physical games with their children. Research shows that play sensitivity matters more for fathers than for mothers when it comes to building relationship with off-spring. It's kind of a big deal. Attachment is often measured by stressing children (in humane ways I promise) and watching their responses. Securely attached children seek comfort from their primary caregivers. Often this is their mother. But this study suggests that fathers have a different and still very important role. In being sensitive to their play and engaging with your child, you are sending the important message: I understand you.
5. Help with sleep: Sleep is often a difficult time for many babies and parents. Babies sleep hours don't typically start expanding until around 6 months old. Many fathers don't know how to help at night, especially when baby is exclusively breastfed. However, one reliable way to help is with the first, getting-to-bed routine. Cleaning baby (wipe down or bath), changing diapers, getting pajamas on, and settling down for the night are all routines that father can pick up to help with sleep. It may not feel like a lot, but these moments are precious ones. Sleep is often a time of extreme vulnerability for all animals (humans included). Learning how to help baby settle for sleep will help you as a father feel confident in your parenting skills. It will also help your baby develop a deeper trust with you, which you may need later on when the "mommy phase" comes in strong.
6. Love on your partner: One of the easiest things ways to bond with your baby is to just love on your partner. Baby loves mom and can even sometimes get possessive of mom, right? Well if you love on mom and mom loves on you, baby learns that there is plenty of love to go around and their relationship isn't in jeopardy. Give your partner kisses, hugs, and cuddles, with baby in arms and when baby is watching.
7. Reconnect with yourself: Entering parenthood marks a huge human milestone. The hormones that kick in during this time can evoke memories of our own childhoods and whatever wounds may exist. Make room to explore yourself. Doing so leads us to greater authenticity, groundedness, and a stronger sense of self. There are ways you can do this independently (through journaling, reading books, making art) or look for help from a professional.