How 'daddy boot camps' prepare fathers and improve outcomes

October 29, 2019

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. 

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.”

Ault says ideally, programs offer examples of new fatherhood from veteran fathers. Often, these are men who have gone through the program and come back when their babies are aged around 3 months to volunteer. They bring the baby, talk about what life has looked like for the last few months, and care for the baby on their own during the 3-hour session.

“It’s a perfect example of what their life will look like several months from now. These are examples most of us don’t have going into this,” Ault says. “For 3 hours, they’re just sort of immersed in what it looks like for a man to do all of this.”

Garfield agrees, adding the key to prenatal programs for fathers is offering them an opportunity to get involved early, and offering support to learn about how to care for baby, but also in the journey of new fatherhood.

“I am from Chicago so I borrow a famous phase and tweak it for fathers when I say ‘get in early and get in often’ with your baby. Fathers will become confident in caring for their children once they get their hands literally dirty and get involved in the day to day care of the baby,” Garfield says. “That is a benefit for mothers, who now can take a break from all things except breastfeeding or pumping, for children, who get time with their other parent, and for the father himself who can form a unique bond with the child.”

There is also a bond shared among the fathers in the program, he adds.

“There is power in bringing a group of men who are expecting or have recently become fathers. In my experience they quickly form bonds around this transition to fatherhood-whether this is with a full term infant or even an infant in the neonatal intensive care unit,” Garfield says. “Creating that space, making it safe to share openly one’s experience, and even to have fun and laugh is important as ways to support men. I’ve found men are more comfortable engaging side-by-side instead of face-to-face, so having something else to do for the men in the program while they are learning or talking can be helpful.”

Although pediatricians most often engage with families after a baby is born, Ault says there is an opportunity to suggest prenatal classes for the father when parents come to meet and select their pediatrician.

“I see that as a potential on-ramp for the pediatrician,” Ault says. “After the baby is born, a father’s pattern of involvement sets in fairly quickly. That’s why it’s good to set a pattern before the baby is born. There’s nothing better a pediatrician can do for the family than to get a father really hands-on involved. The family is only more likely to flourish when that happens.”