Coping with the new arrival

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How new fathers can form that crucial bond with their newborn

Coping with the new arrival
(Jupiterimages/Goodshoot/Getty Images)

I felt like a bystander for the first few months of my son's life. I definitely didn't feel the instant bond with him that my wife did.

— James Mallinson, 36, father of Ben, 3

Like many first-time dads, Peter Miller had a distinct image in his mind: The contented newborn, softly gurgling and gazing up into the eyes of her doting father as he gently rocked her in his arms. This is what the 28-year-old from Glasgow, thought of during the final few weeks of his wife's pregnancy as they both eagerly anticipated the birth of their daughter. "I was counting down the days until I could turn this fantasy into reality," Miller said. "But it couldn't have been more different." While baby Imogen was born happy and healthy after a relatively straightforward labour, Miller didn't experience the immediate bond he had assumed would be instant. "As soon as Imogen was placed in my arms, I looked down at her and panicked," he said. "What was I supposed to do now?"

Why many new dads find it difficult to bond with their newborns

Miller was unprepared for his anxiety and had no idea how to deal with it, nor was he aware that it is a common problem for many first-time fathers.

"The skills that are typically associated with manhood and masculinity do not prepare a person for taking care of a baby," said Dr. Jenn Berman, a family and child therapist and author of "SuperBaby: 12 Ways to Give Your Child a Head Start in the First 3 Years."

In many cases the mother can unwittingly add to the problem.

"In the beginning, new mums feel such a strong bond that they are often ambivalent about handing over their newborns, even to their own husbands," Berman said.

Other contributory factors include poor role models of involved fathers, media portrayals of men as idiotic dads and the pressure not to take paternity leave, she said.

For James Mallinson, 36, from Prestwick, Scotland, the experience of holding his newborn son in his arms for the first time was not as life-changing as he thought it would be. After 11 hours of holding his wife's hand through a painful labour that culminated in a forceps delivery, he felt strangely detached from the situation.

"I assumed the bond would be immediate," he said. "But I was still reeling from witnessing the traumatic birth, and more emphasis was placed on Ben getting his first feed from his mum than on anything else. I handed him back to my wife, and from that point on I felt like I was hardly involved for the next six months."

As the modern concept of a family evolves, it has become increasingly common, as well as more socially acceptable, for mum to take on the role of the breadwinner and dad at stay at home to take on the lion's share of child care. In this situation, it is even more important for fathers to gain the confidence they need to overcome any initial anxiety.

The younger a baby is, the more basic its needs are -- feeding and comforting. It is common for new dads to question whether they have the skills to meet those needs.

Mallinson's wife was self-employed and started working again only a few weeks after Ben's birth.

"She worked from home, only for a few hours in the evening after I got home from the office," said Mallinson. "But I didn't want to bother her with questions every five minutes. I focused on becoming the best dad I could be, rather than try to become a replacement mum."

Father-baby bonding tips

To help get over feelings of anxiety or inadequacy, Berman recommends new fathers take a child care class to benefit from professional help and advice. She also suggested joining an online group of dads to get support and share parenting tips.

Above all, face your fears. "Challenge yourself to try new baby care tasks even if you are nervous about them," Berman said.

A good place to start is feeding. As soon as mum starts to supplement breast-feeding with formula -- or even earlier, if she isn't breast-feeding at all -- offer to take over a middle-of-the-night feed. It may be difficult to drag yourself out of bed in the wee hours, but your wife will love you for it, and you will soon grow to love sharing some quiet time with your baby with nobody else around to disturb you.

Mallinson found this to be the turning point in his relationship with his son.

"As soon as Ben moved on to formula," he said, "I suddenly felt like an equal parent. I was able to meet his greatest need in the same way that his mum could. Looking back, I should have relaxed and enjoyed him before that stage instead of worrying that I wasn't living up to what was expected of me."

Another potentially stressful task is bathing your baby, but new dads can make this easier on themselves by simply stripping and getting into the tub alongside their little one, who will feel comforted from the skin-to-skin contact. As well as carrying out the task of bathing the baby, the experience will help with that crucial bonding.

Take advantage of the size of your newborn; babies are extremely portable.

"I used to strap Ben to my chest and get on with my gardening," said Mallinson. "He normally fell asleep, but I'd chat away to him anyway, telling him what I was planting. He's 3 now and loves helping me look after our vegetable patch. I like to think that stems from all those early days of carrying him around with me."

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