Let Dad Be Dad: 6 Ways to Encourage New Fathers

How to empower and support your partner as he gets the hang of fatherhood.

Medically Reviewed by Hansa D. Bhargava, MD on September 14, 2015
6 min read

When your newborn finally arrives, it’s easy to feel like there are two stars of the show: mom and baby.

But what about dad? While he didn’t just push a live being out of his body, he’s probably as scared and excited as you are, and his role isn’t as clearly defined.

Read on for our top six tips on helping your partner hit fatherhood with a running start.

So you’ve been devouring everything you can about pregnancy and infants during your pregnancy. Encourage your partner to do the same.

“A lot of books, instructional information, and magazines are geared to new moms,” says Omaha, NE, pediatrician Laura Jana, MD, co-author of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Heading Home With Your Newborn: From Birth to Reality. “I tell my patients that anywhere they see the word ‘mom’ they should substitute ‘parent.’”

You’ve likely already signed your guy up to accompany you to CPR and childbirth courses (after all, he’s going to be the one rubbing your back during labor) but what about breastfeeding classes?

“I love when dads show up for breastfeeding classes,” Jana says. “Fathers should fight off the sense of being a tagalong.”

There’s one thing that’s practically guaranteed: After giving birth you will be feeling pretty beaten up.

And the next day? If your baby rooms with you, you can bet it will be your first sleepless night.

That means you’re going to have to rely on your partner. A lot.

He’ll be the one to run out and ask the nurse for more ibuprofen. He’ll be the one helping you to the bathroom. And when you’re too bleary-eyed to hold the baby, he’ll be there.

“More and more hospitals are adopting breastfeeding-friendly practices, which include an emphasis on kangaroo care: placing the baby on mom’s bare chest to promote bonding and breastfeeding,” says David Hill, MD, a pediatrician in Wilmington, NC, and author of Between Us Dads: A Father's Guide to Child Health. “Obviously, for nursing, we like the chest to be mom’s, but dad’s works great when mom needs a break.”

New York City dad Rob Bischoff says he spent a lot of time holding his son, Jake, now 3 months, while they were still in the hospital. “I rocked him and tried different rhythms to soothe him to sleep. It’s totally rewarding once you’re able to figure out a solution to stop him from crying.”

You’re probably looking forward to at least 6 weeks home with the baby, but chances are your partner has only a week or two before he must head back to work.

“If it’s possible for the father to take time off, it’s really important,” says Scott W. Cohen, MD, a pediatrician in Beverly Hills, CA, and author of Eat Sleep Poop: A Common Sense Guide to Your Baby’s First Year. “I took the second 2 weeks off work once our family had left and things calmed down, so that I could help and learn about the baby.”

Once your partner heads back to his job, he may feel out of the loop. Email him photos and updates so he knows what’s going on. You both will have to try a little harder to keep him involved. When he gets home he can enjoy taking baby for a stroll or sitting outside while you enjoy a few quiet minutes.

“If dad is working and mom is home with the baby, he can use that time away as an excuse,” Cohen says. “He may think, 'She always cries when she’s with me, but when you hold her she stops crying immediately, so you should comfort her.' But these things don’t get better unless you try.”

It can be difficult to relate to a newborn. “For me, the first couple of months were really hard,” says Tony Sacco, father to 4-month-old Carter, in Chicago. “You don’t get much back at the beginning at all. I struggled with that before Carter started engaging me with his eyes and making noises.”

One of the best ways for fathers to establish a connection in the beginning is by soothing the baby. “While dads are very comfortable in a stimulating role they sometimes worry that they’re not good at nurturing, Hill says. “But dads have a special role to play in nurturing. Babies who are unhappy love to hear a deep voice. Dads can serve as source of calm sometimes when mom is tired, stressed, and going through emotional ups and downs.”

You both will soon figure out how to tell when your baby needs to eat and when she just needs soothing. That’s why Cheri Barber, RN, president of the National Association of Pediatric Nurse Practitioners, talks to parents about the difference between nutritive and nonnutritive sucking. “Just because a baby is crying doesn’t mean she needs to be fed,” Barber says. “Infants suck to soothe, too. Dad can offer the baby a pacifier or rock him to soothe him.”

One challenge for dads is that one of the most basic parts of their baby’s care, feeding, can seem completely outside their realm if mom’s nursing.

But nursing isn’t just about the time spent latching on; your partner can take part in a big way (as he’ll learn if he shows up to breastfeeding class). You’ll be exhausted and nursing around the clock, so your partner can take over all the other details, everything from changing diapers, to burping, to making sure you have a glass of water.

“I don’t think I think I can count on one hand the number of diapers I changed in the first 2 weeks,” says Rob Bischoff’s wife, Jen. “That’s something Rob could do. He would take Jake from me, change him, and bring him back.”

For some dads, however, it takes actually feeding the baby to feel like they’re really involved. Once nursing is established, when your baby is about 4 weeks old, you may want to introduce a pumped bottle so that he can feed the baby (and you can get some more sleep). Remember baby will resist initially, so keep the pumped bottle a consistent part of the evening routine.

Many moms struggle with letting go and allowing dad to do his thing. “As a new mom, you’re in that mother lion role to begin with and you can inadvertently shut the father out and make him feel unimportant,” Cohen says.

Tony’s wife, Rachel, admits that it was hard for her to let her husband take the lead. “I was micromanaging and wanted him to do things the way I would,” she says. “Tony would say, ‘I have to figure this out for myself. It wouldn’t be the way you do it, but I have to figure out what works for me.’ I had to take a step back.”

Don’t forget that you’re partners in this. You can -- and should -- share in the worries, but also the crazy joys of parenting a baby.

“Have a sense of humor. This is something that dad can play a big role in,” Cohen says. “Moms tend to suffer from information overload, combined with anxiety and hormones. Dad can be the person who helps to level the playing field.”