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The many ways in which babies need their fathers

Over the past few decades there has been a move away from the traditional view in Western society which limits the role of the father to provider and protector who enables the mother to fulfil her mothering. This interpretation of the father’s position in the family also suggested that babies first formed a relationship with the mother and then with the father – in other words, that there is a hierarchy of attachment on the part of the baby to the mother and to the father.

We now know that fathers exert an important influence on the early development of their babies, and that babies can make sense of the difference between their mother and father, have relationships with each, as well as some understanding about how they work together as a couple.

There are important qualities that mothers and fathers have in common which positively influence babies’ development and well-being. Like their relationship with their mothers, babies thrive when their fathers have loving, close and nurturing relationships with them and are empathic and able to sensitively respond to them; are consistently involved and neither are too intrusive or distant; are emotionally and psychologically ready to try to understand their baby from the baby’s point of view; are able to shield them enough from the stress and conflict that life may bring.

Although mothers and fathers have things in common, fathers make important contributions in distinctive and complementary ways:

Fathers offer their babies more exciting and active play than caretaking. Supportively challenging behaviours on the part of the father allows babies an opportunity to contend with intense feelings and work out how these feelings can be managed effectively. These experiences can help promote babies to explore, take risks, try new skills, and learn how to handle situations flexibly. Fathers will often talk with more advanced vocabulary and complex patterns, teaching their babies about the communicative demands of social exchanges of the outside world, which helps with the child’s adaption to new social and cognitive situations.

In order to offer their baby the best opportunities to thrive both father and mother need to be able to handle the life changing event of becoming a parent by making the adjustments to everyday life, their identity and relationships around them. What is essential to the baby’s development is how the couple communicate, co-operate and support each other as parents. By working together, mothers and fathers provide a safe emotional climate within which their baby can be just that – a child.

The Anna Freud National Centre for Children and Families is committed to assisting fathers when difficulties arise in parenting their child. There are many reasons why assuming the new identity of fatherhood can feel very difficult, and often fathers refrain from asking for help. It is our wish to be known to fathers and their families as a welcoming and safe place to turn to if needed. 

We welcome the commitment in the NHS Long Term Plan to expand access to evidence-based parenting therapies in specialist perinatal mental health services to include father-infant and co-parenting interventions, and hope to share our expertise in this important work as it starts to be implemented across the country.