It is three days till Father’s Day and soon I’ll be the proud owner of yet another rock and roll t-shirt and will enjoy – as our family’s traditions dictate - a sunny Sunday (hopefully) with my family and friends in the park or around the table. It is a day to celebrate not just me, in my role as ‘Dad’ - cook, helper with homework, retriever of footballs, teller of dad jokes and bedtime stories - but also my wife and son, and the close family we have created.
Late last year I visited a Unicef neonatal unit with our president Kirsty Young and Dame Pippa Harris, executive producer of Call the Midwife. I had the privilege to see the great work the NHS staff are doing in terms of providing world class care and helping new families begin their lives together. I recognised the same startled, shocked but undoubtedly happy expression on these new dads’ faces, as I have seen in the field but also on the faces of friends and family, as they begin this epic journey. Nothing will prepare you. And it reminds me that wherever we are in world, we all want the same thing for our children, to be safe, healthy and happy. Our children’s human rights.
Unicef’s Baby Friendly programme in the UK trains health professionals in hospitals, health visiting services and children’s centres to raise standards of care and support parents to build close and loving relationships with their babies. The Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital was Unicef’s first neonatal unit to receive full Baby Friendly neonatal accreditation and it was clear to see why during our visit.
When we arrived we were met by Matron, Louise Rattenbury, Lead Nurse Sue Prosser and Karen Read, the unit’s infant feeding coordinator. They explained how the programme had provided a practical framework for caring, not only for very sick babies, but for their families too.
Advances in neuroscience have proven that when children spend their earliest years of life – particularly their first 1,000 days – in a nurturing and stimulating environment, their brains can form as many as one million new neural connections every second. It is these neural connections that can determine a child’s cognitive ability, their health and happiness, how they learn and think, their ability to deal with stress, and their ability to form relationships. I know from years of working in international development, and seeing first-hand, that good nutrition, protection, play and love in early childhood can make a vital difference. It is these factors which spark the neural connections to form in children’s brains and it is often the parents who hold the biggest stake in this process. The research tells us that when fathers are able to bond with their babies from the very beginning of life, they are more likely to play a more active role in their children’s development.
The Royal Devon and Exeter Hospital has introduced simple initiatives as part of their Unicef Baby Friendly journey, which have meant that parents can spend more time with their children during their first moments. This includes allowing parents 24 hour access to the ward, playrooms for older siblings, pop-up camp beds and comfy chairs to make skin-to-skin contact easier and more comfortable. All measures made to support parents to make close and loving bonds with their babies – bonds which will last a lifetime.
It has been brilliant to hear the stories of some of the fathers and their enthusiasm about building loving relationships through initiatives such as skin to skin contact. Like Alex, who has been bonding with his son Harley James, said, ‘It’s so incredible to have something so precious so close to you, it’s an overwhelming happiness.’ And Nathan with his baby Ted, who was born at 29 weeks “the first time you hold your new baby is one of the best feelings ever, it’s hard to describe but it feels like you’re being given someone you already know.” And Paul, dad to baby Archie, who said: “I’ve been here every day, I’ve been doing skin to skin, it helps him relax, it helps his brain function, and I feel this connection with him… it’s a true bonding experience, so warm.”
Father’s Day should be a reminder of the importance of breaking down social barriers which prevent fathers from spending precious time with their young children, so this Father’s Day, when I’m spending time kicking a ball around with my own son, I’ll be all too aware of the importance of enjoying quality time together and how it is the best way I can help him achieve his full potential.