I work with a LOT of parents! At pretty much every single workshop I run, a dad will come up to me at the end and sheepishly say, “can I ask you a question? Why does our child not settle for me?”. They describe hours of trying to soothe a crying baby, trying to get a toddler to sleep, or trying to comfort a hurt or sick preschooler. The scenarios, whatever they are, almost always end the same way; “s/he will only settle for my partner, I don’t know what I’m doing wrong? Does s/he just love me less?” This is understandably upsetting, to both parents. The ‘shunned parent’ often feels as if their attachment to their child, or rather the child’s attachment to them, is somehow poorer than that between child and mother. They worry that things will always be this way. They feel left out and somewhat hopeless, unable to give the mother a true break as they cannot settle the child as she can. My response here is always the same. This is normal, in fact it’s common and it will pass. Dad has done nothing wrong. The primary attachment in the first three years of life is almost always with mum. This isn’t a sexist stereotype. The baby has known mum for nine months longer than anybody else, that’s quite some head start on attachment! To add to this, if the baby is breastfed they will see mum as their world, the provider of food, drink, warmth, safety and security. She is literally their everything. As wonderful and loving as dad is it is totally understandable that the initial relationship won’t be the same.
This strong preference for mum absolutely won’t last forever though, as the child grows and the reliance on ‘the boob’ lessens, so their attachment will grow with other people, especially dad. In the years to come it is highly likely that father and child will be ‘as thick as thieves’ and it is mum who will be on the outside looking in. This initial super strong attachment with mum though is totally normal and very, very healthy. it is normal for children to be incredibly upset if the bond is temporarily broken, it is healthy to have separation anxiety, it is healthy for them to be distressed if they are with anybody who isn’t mum, even if that’s dad. What happens if mum needs to go out and dad needs to do nap or bedtime? I think changing the goal posts here is important. Dad’s goal shouldn’t be to stop the crying, it should be to support while crying. It’s OK that your child cries, it’s not OK that they cry alone. It’s a big deal for dads to hold a crying baby, or sobbing toddler who needs their mum. His hold tells them ’it’s OK, you’re not alone, I’m here and I love you too. I know you miss your mum, but I am strong enough to cope with your tears and support you until she is back again. We know that this has a very different physiological effect on the child than crying alone. Until the attachments naturally change, think of ways for dad and child to have their special time and activities. Things that work well, are:
- Shared baths
- Shared breakfasts (especially to give mum a few more minutes in bed)
- ‘Rough and tumble’ play (dads tend to be more natural at this!)
- An evening walk together
- Saturday morning trips to the park, library or a friend’s house
- After dinner play, or story time
This ‘special time’ can help both to bond and, in time, will aid in the shift in attachment in dad’s favour.
Sarah Ockwell-Smith - mother of four
More on supported crying HERE
Sarah’s Gentle Sleep Book is available internationallyHERE
and Why Your Baby’s Sleep Matters Book (for breastfed babies under 12 months) is available internationallyHERE.