Fathers, Like Mothers, Are Critical to Infants' Mental Health

10/06/2016 17:06 | Updated 10 June 2016

This week marks the very first Infant Mental Health Awareness Week, in which the Anna Freud Centre and many different organisations are highlighting the importance of laying the foundations for good mental health in the first 1001 days of life. Parents' interactions with their babies are naturally of paramount importance, but we sometimes underestimate the key role that fathers play in the development of their baby's mental health.

Becoming a father is a life changing event, yet it is mothers who receive the most parental support and attention in society. This attention may be related to the still prevalent idea that babies need their mothers when small, and that fathers become important only 'later on'. However, the facts are that fathers who are sensitively involved in caring for their babies from the beginning have a stronger bond with their babies; the more involved they are the more their levels of oxytocin (the 'love' hormone) resemble those in the mother, when she is the main carer.

A father will contribute significantly to a baby's wellbeing by providing his own special ways of loving, stimulating, and comforting the baby. The baby will become accustomed to his touch, smell, voice, skin and gain new experiences, different from those they have with their mother, thus extending their emotional security and learning. Fathers contribute in ways that differ from mothers. For example, fathers characteristically play in a more boisterous way with their infants. Provided the play is sensitive to the baby's cues, these experiences become part of the baby's future model of safe and pleasurable relationships. Fathers who support the mother of their baby help her to be a better parent, and can also buffer the baby from the mother's tiredness, boredom, and irritation - for example, when things become too much for her, if she is unwell, or after a long day at home. This should be only one part of his ongoing immersion in the care of the children, which will mean that the father is a mixed bag of discipline, fun, frustration and excitement to his child.

Sometimes fathers are their baby's main carer, for different reasons - some voluntarily, such as when the couple agree that father will give up work to care for the baby, and some involuntarily - such as when, through circumstances of loss, the father becomes a single father. Fathers in these circumstances can be faced with a grieving baby who crawls from room to room looking for the lost mother, or who cannot settle at night. Babies also grow up in same sex families with two fathers. There are many preconceptions about these arrangements but, from the baby's point of view, they experience sensitive responses to their infant needs for safety, security and stimulation by their full-time dads.

Fathers who live separately from their children have an additional onus to prove their love and commitment despite not being 'there' on a daily basis. In such circumstances, fathers often believe that they must make it up by being the stereotyped 'fun daddy'. This is another myth, since what will really count for the child in the longer term is being emotionally interested and available, arriving on time to fetch the baby/little child, and bringing them back to mother in a state of readiness to make the transition back to her care - i.e. not overexcited, overtired or uncertain when they will next see their dad.

With all of these factors considered, we can conclude that fathers' mental health needs attention just as urgently as mothers' mental health. Depression rates among new fathers is higher than that for men of the same age who are not fathers, with estimates of around 7% in the population in the UK. In addition to the suffering of the father as an individual, depression in fathers can affect the quality of the relationship between the parents and impact their children's development through withdrawal from the many roles described above.

As a society we rightly place a lot of emphasis on the care children experience from their parents during their earliest days, as these relationships build babies' minds and provide powerful experiences which form the foundation of their brain architecture, for better or for worse. Mothers play a crucial role, but so do fathers - it's time we do away with the myths and recognise their equally valuable contribution.