Fathers: Those Engrossing First Minutes
by Richard Reed, PhD

[Editor’s note: This article first appeared in Midwifery Today Issue 58, Summer 2001.]

The midwife clipped the umbilical cord and handed me this new little being. He was all wet and wrinkled, and I held him to my chest, wanting to wrap him in my body and arms and keep him warm and safe. So precious. I offered his little hand my finger and he clutched it, each perfect little fingernail staring up at me; each little knuckle formed by minute folds of beautiful pink skin. My world was transformed—later I realized that it wasn’t only my world. I myself became a new person in the process.

Midwives, fathers and mothers all agree that dads should participate in childbirth. They are less clear, however, about why dads should be there. Do fathers really ease birthing for mothers? Is there a moral obligation to accompany mothers on their passage? Do babies need fathers to hold them while mothers recuperate? My own introduction to birthing made one thing perfectly clear. In addition to all the other good reasons for fathers’ presence at birth, it was a wonderful way for me and my son to begin our lives together.

Participating in labor, witnessing birth, and holding his new baby have a profound effect on a father. For the last several years I’ve been interviewing men for a study on childbirth rituals, and I have discovered that almost all fathers talk about the power of the experience of participating in birth and how it affects their identities and relationships with their babies.

Science is documenting what fathers already know: being at birth lays the groundwork for a man’s life-long relationship with his baby. The first minutes become part of a powerful and permanent bond between the two. Later, long hours together spent cuddling and playing will help mold a permanent tie that they will depend on throughout life.

Attachment

Psychologists have analyzed babies’ early social relations and shown that babies form powerful and personal ties, called “attachment,” to caretakers. Children begin to create these attachments by about two months, responding to their mothers’ presence with crying, whimpering, smiling and cooing. Mothers become more than a source of physical satisfaction; they become a place of security. These affective ties are necessary to the physical, intellectual and social development of the infant. In a classic series of experiments, psychologists brought mothers and babies into a room, had the babies engage in play, then asked the mothers to leave. In most cases the children experienced “separation anxiety;” they cried, whimpered, searched for her, and were disconsolate without her.

What of fathers? Early research described attachment to mothers, but recent studies point out that a baby’s relationship with his or her father is important too. In fact, these studies find little difference between the children’s attachment to fathers and mothers. There was no preference for either parent and children reacted similarly to separation from fathers and mothers. Few children protested separation from either parent when the other parent remained with them and they were just as likely to be excited upon the return of either parent.(1)

Parental Differences

This doesn’t suggest that fathers and mothers were indistinguishable to babies. Although attachment may be similar for fathers and mothers, the two parents usually form different type relations with their child. Fathers tend to engage their infants in unpredictable bursts of physical and social stimulation, rolling the babies in their arms and nuzzling their cheeks. Fathers look babies in the eyes and engage them in play and roughhouse; mothers are usually more modulated and predictable, speaking in soft tones and using repetitive sounds as they gingerly caress the children. The differences start in the first hours of life and remain constant as children age. Children learn to seek out mothers and fathers for different purposes. As they grow older they tend to look to fathers for play and mothers to kiss their scraped knees

How important is attending birth to a father’s relationship with his child? Recent research about very young infants shows that they observe and understand far more than we once believed. Rather than being insensate and unconscious, most newborns are quiet and alert. They enter a quiescent state, which lasts about 40 minutes, during which their energy is focused on seeing, hearing and responding to their environment. They mold their body into comforting arms, reach out and grasp the hands awaiting hands. Babies look directly at their parents’ faces, make eye contact, and imitate the movements of their heads.

Fathers and Newborns

My interviews with men tell me that just as new babies reach out to their new world, fathers open up to their new child. Despite the stereotype of the dad who fumbles frantically with the fragile newborn, new fathers are neither inept nor uninterested in neonatal interaction. They are as engaged with their children as mothers are, attending to babies’ cues and responding appropriately. (Studies of Israeli fathers find that with an average of less than seven hours with their infant, blindfolded fathers can identify their children by the feel of their hands.[2]) Fathers adjust their speech, raise the pitch of their voices and repeat sounds to correspond to the interest and attention of the baby. By responding to their babies’ signals, fathers reinforce the newborns’ behavior and initiate the new relationship.

As I talked to men, it became clear that fathers of newborns experience their new children with great intensity and great interest. Like me, they marvel at his 10 perfect little toes, or her 10 tiny fingers. They fall in love with smiles and scrunched up little faces. They delight as the little mouth searches their arm for a nipple.

Fathers also begin to understand that this new being is a unique individual. Two physicians, Martin Greenberg and Norman Morris, interviewed new fathers who talked about their emotions. One dad remembered, “There was much more character in the child than I thought there was going to be at that stage in the face. I mean it didn’t remind me of anybody, but it seemed to have a personality immediately…. It was absolutely incredible, the sight itself.” Greenberg and Morris called this attraction “engrossment,” as fathers become filled by the image and idea of their new child.(3)

Most fathers feel elation at the sight of their newborn. The feeling comes over them in the first minutes of seeing their child and remains for several days. One dad described it as being “high, stunned, drunk, dazed off-the-ground, full of energy, feeling 10 feet tall, feeling different, and taken out of myself.” Another said, “ I took a look at it and I took a look at the face and I left the ground! I thought, Oh! This is marvelous.” And a third, “I just keep going back to the kid. It’s like a magnet. That’s what I can’t get over, that I feel like that.”

Attending Birth

If fathers’ engrossment lays the groundwork for the future relationship between the father and child, it would seem men who didn’t attend birth would be disadvantaged. The research does not suggest that they are. Greenberg and Morris compared men who had attended birth with those who had not. Fifteen fathers of each group were given written questionnaires to fill out on the third day after the birth. Men were asked to describe their feelings about fatherhood and their babies. Both groups of men showed the strong paternal feelings of engrossment, and fathers who attended the birth had no stronger reaction than those who did not.

However, attending birth does make a difference. Fathers who attend birth feel like they already have a relationship with the child. They feel more comfortable holding their child. In clinical studies, fathers who attended birth are more confident in distinguishing their child from others in a group. “[Fathers] repeatedly and spontaneously commented ‘when you see your child born, you know it’s yours.’”(4) In addition, fathers who had attended birth felt more comfortable when holding their child.

While simple attendance at birth does not seem to affect his relation with the new child, the quality of a father’s experience does seem to be related to his later relationship. Fathers who experience birth as a positive event have stronger relationships with their newborn. Those who find the birth to be a “peak experience” are more likely to perform care-taking tasks for their baby and feel that their child is a “real” person. Fathers who, a week after the birth, remember it as a very positive experience, are more likely to feel confident about caring for their children and to share pleasure with their babies.

What makes birth a positive experience for fathers? Two factors stand out. First, fathers who join with their partners in labor and share the experience with them have the most to gain. Men who are sensitive to what their partners feel and desire are subsequently more involved with their babies.5 Finally, research indicates that the birth environment, whether it is a sterile delivery room, a homey birthing room or home birth, might have significant effects on the long-term relationship between father and child. In fact, these factors seem to be principle ones in determining fathers’ reaction to childbirth.

Richard Reed is Associate Professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas. He has written several books about the Guarani of Paraguay. This paper is condensed from his study of fathers’ childbirth rituals to be published by the University of California Press. He is father to two dynamite kids.

References

  1. Lamb, Michael. 1997. The development of father-infant relationships. in Michael Lamb, ed. The Role of the Father in Child Development. New York: John Wiley and Sons.
  2. Kaitz, M., Shiri, S., Danzinger, S. et al. 1984. Fathers can also recognize their children by touch. Infant Behaviour and Development 17: 205–07.
  3. Greenberg, M. and Morris, N. 1974. Engrossment: the newborn’s impact upon the father. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 44(4): 527–33.
  4. Greenberg and Morris ibid, p.522.
  5. Peterson, G,. L. Mehl, P. Leiderman. 1979. The role of some birth-related variables in father attachment. American Journal of Orthopsychiatry 49(2): 330–38.

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