You're a dad now! It's exciting, though parts of it may be new to you -- like changing a diaper or soothing your crying baby.
Many people focus on the mother-baby bond. But Pittsburgh pediatrician Mark Diamond says, "Other than the physical act of nursing, dads can do everything else: holding the baby, cuddling, soothing." And the unique connection between a new dad and his baby is special.
Regularly singing or reading books to your partner's pregnant belly may seem strange. But doing so establishes a strong connection before the baby is even born. Later on, your newborn may recognize the tone and pattern of each of your voices.
You can also strengthen your connection to your baby simply by being there for your partner. "Go to OB appointments, ultrasound visits, and breastfeeding classes," says pediatrician David Hill, author of Between Us Dads: A Father's Guide to Child Health. "Become intimately involved with the process because mothers who feel more supported by fathers tend to involve the fathers more with child-rearing later on. And more involved means more likely to bond."
If everything about babies is new to you, start getting comfortable with it now. Spend an afternoon with a new-dad friend and his baby before yours arrives. The experience can help you be confident enough to focus on getting to know your newborn -- starting in the delivery room.
Once your baby arrives, seek out advice from the nurses in the hospital during the first days of your child's life. Pediatrician Emily Borman-Shoap, medical director for newborn care at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital, says, "They can give practical tips on changing a diaper, swaddling a baby, burping a baby -- all the things that are wonderful for dads to do."
Don't assume that the mother will naturally have a stronger connection with the baby than you will. Rest assured that as long as you spend time with your baby, a bond will develop between the two of you. The bond may not seem apparent during the first few days when the mother-baby bond may already be thriving -- but it will be there.
"It's not a competition," Caroline DiBattisto, assistant professor of pediatrics at Georgia Health Sciences University, says. "Parents should support each other and work together as a team. It's important for dads to relax, be themselves, help Mom out, spend time with the baby, and enjoy this special time."
Pitching in will give you confidence as a new parent.
"I think a lot of dads feel nervous that babies are fragile and they're somehow going to do something wrong. But I promise they won't," Borman-Shoap says. "Don't worry about being perfect. The worst thing that happens if you change a diaper wrong is someone gets poop or pee on them. You wash it off, try again, and laugh about it. You need to get right in there and try it."
If your newborn was adopted or carried by a surrogate, you may feel that you should do something extra to encourage the bonding process. But this isn't necessary. "Children respond to comfort, to being loved," Diamond says. "They feel it. They sense it."
Get in Touch
During the first days and weeks of your baby's life, the power of touch can bring you closer. Hold your baby whenever possible. Stroke her back. Rock her gently in your arms. "Bonding has as much to do with contact as involvement," Hill says. "If you're in contact with your baby, the bond will occur."
Many hospitals encourage kangaroo care: placing your baby, wearing only a diaper, against your bare chest. "Lying skin to skin with your baby is great for moms and dads to do," Borman-Shoap says. "Babies are comforted by the up-and-down movement of your chest when you're breathing. They hear your heartbeat, and it helps them keep their body temperature regulated, especially for tiny babies in the NICU."
Wear Many Hats
Is your partner breastfeeding the baby? Obviously, you can't pinch hit there. But you can nourish your baby in other ways.
"Feeding is an important part of taking care of a baby, but it's not the only thing," DiBattisto says. "Dads can help with bathing, dressing, and changing diapers. They can read to, snuggle with, and hold their children. Dads can also pick up and bring the baby to Mom for feedings, which would be much appreciated in the middle of the night, then take the baby back for burping."
Don't fret that you won't be able to soothe your baby because you don't smell like mother's milk. Dads have a knack for handling their babies thanks to certain manly traits. "Dads have a very special role to play in nurturing and calming down a fussy baby," Hill says. "Sometimes, if you have larger, stronger hands, you can specialize in making a nice, tight swaddle. Babies like to be gently vibrated or jiggled -- never shaken -- and a dad's knee is a great place to experience that sensation. And babies often calm down to the sound of a deep voice. So singing, humming, or speaking calmly can help."
Find a task you love and use it to deepen your relationship with your baby. Sean Folkson of White Plains, N.Y., took bedtime duty when his toddler son was born, and the special time they spend together each night has brought them closer.
"Early on, I took every opportunity to help him get to sleep," Folkson says. "Whether it was a nap on my shoulder or I was putting him down in his crib while singing a lullaby, we were bonding during those precious moments."