What to do when the baby cries; how to get the diaper on just right; or bathing baby may seem like the top concerns of new fathers, but experts say confidence and support are the real deficits for fathers-to-be.
Enter daddy boot camp. These prenatal classes for men are popping up across the country, offering men a chance to get involved before baby comes along.
Craig Garfield, MD, MAPP, professor of pediatrics at Northwestern’s Feinberg School of Medicine and attending physician at Lurie Children’s Hospital of Chicago in Illinois, runs one such program and says there is much more to prenatal classes for fathers than teaching infant-care tasks.
“We must understand the changes that are happening to families and incorporate into our pediatric practices ways to include fathers. Like it or not, men have many societal barriers to overcome in order to encourage them to feel empowered to participate in the care of their child,” Garfield says. “They themselves often feel as if they are going to break their baby and they feel that mothers already know everything and the father is just a bumbling fool who will break the baby if left to his own devices. Never mind that many mothers also feel this way! The message to pediatricians is to gently welcome and encourage fathers to care for their baby.”
Part of the problem in the prenatal period is that the father can sometimes be an afterthought. Chuck Ault, regional director of community health improvement at Saint Joseph Hospital in Denver, Colorado, says in the clinical environment, mother and baby are the patients.
“The father’s not the patient. From the clinical perspective, he’s just kind of overlooked from the get go. That sort of verifies everything he’s been told up to that point about his role in society,” Ault says. “Very few men babysit and are praised for that from a young age. We don’t necessarily groom young boys to be good fathers, then they are handed a baby and we say ‘congratulations’ and a switch is supposed to flip.”
It’s easy for men to feel as though having a baby is the mother’s project, he adds.
“Those aren’t messages that serve us well. The one thing we have learned in over 30 years of doing this is that when a man is prepared and confident to be a father, he delivers,” Ault says. “And he delivers for everyone—his partner, his child, his community. He just needs that sort of reassurance and communication at the very start—and I mean before the baby is born—that he’s hard-wired to do this.”
Although programs like the one Ault oversees offer education on practical tasks, support for the father-to-be is the real focus. Prenatal classes for fathers, by fathers allow men to learn about infant care in a no-judgment zone, where they feel more free to ask questions and share concerns, Ault says.
“It seems the best way for a father to learn this is from other fathers,” Ault says. “I hear from other fathers that they shut down a little bit when a mother gives instructions. Diapering and swaddling—those are almost symbolic,” Ault says. “They are in and of itself not important; they are easily learned. What keeps us from learning those tasks is what we want to develop. There’s all kinds of barriers with masculinity and caretaking.”