Dad’s the word: why it’s time for medical experts to get real about fathers’ importance

22 April 2014

Adrienne Burgess writes:

Infancy is the best time to set parents’ relationships with their children – and each other – off on the right track. In the old days that meant helping mum to bond with baby. Now we know that father-infant and mother-father relationships are also crucial.

Unfortunately these key insights seem to have passed by the Warwick Infant and Family Wellbeing Unit (WIFWU)  at Warwick University Medical School, whose Getting to Know Your Baby website and app launched last week.

In these resources – intended to help professionals support secure attachment between new parents and their babies – there is not one image of a father interacting positively with his child. When ‘parent’/infant interactions are demonstrated, fathers are completely missing.  Elsewhere they sit or stand, nodding dumbly, while their partner talks. Only two men are seen holding infants and both are presented negatively:  one dad holds an unsettled baby, the other a crying baby – later seen being comforted by its mother.   In the materials for professionals, only mothers’ mental health is considered,  professionals provide support only to mothers,  only men are violent and when addressing family violence, perpetrators are not to be engaged with.   Perhaps most absurdly,it is a mother, not a father, who describes a dad talking to his baby in the womb.

The Warwick Infant and Family Wellbeing Unit, who claim to be ‘experts’ producing ‘evidence based’ materials, should know better.  And the funders – mainly the NHS but including the NSPCC which has in the past produced resources which address both parents relatively well – should be embarrassed and angry.

All over the world, researchers are showing that fathers have substantial impact on infant mental health.  For example our own Dr Paul Ramchandani of Imperial College London, explains (in the careful language of high-quality investigation) that ‘disengaged and remote father-child interactions as early as the third month of life’ predict behaviour problems in children when they are older (Ramchandani et al., 2013).  In the US, Feldman and others (2013) have shown that ‘verbal exchanges between fathers and their infants and between mothers and their infants each, independently and uniquely, predict pre-schoolers’ social competence and lower aggression’.

What’s also clear is that interactions between each individual parent and their baby are partly shaped by what the other parent is doing.  So, for example, greater father involvement in infant care and other household tasks is linked with lower parenting stress and depression in mothers (Fisher et al, 2006);  likewise mother-child attachment is less secure when a mother experiences domestic violence (Levendosky et al, 2011) or when her baby’s father is a heavy drinker (Eiden and Leonard, 1996).

Fletcher (2009) found that an intervention with a father whose partner was depressed not only improved the quality of his parenting (with inevitable positive impact on his baby’s mental health) but also had positive knock-on effects on the quality of mother-infant interactions in that household.   Feinberg et al (under review) and Feinberg and Kan (2008) have found that when the couple are supported to develop positive ‘co-parenting’, mothers are less depressed, boys exhibit fewer ‘externalising’ behaviour problems at ages three and seven, and children of both sexes and at both these ages, exhibit fewer ‘internalizing’ problems.

Children with secure attachments to more than one caregiver do better.  For example, very young children so blessed ‘exhibit less over-control’ and ‘express less negative emotion’ (Easterbrooks and Goldberg, 1990).  In middle school, they are more likely to demonstrate ‘pro-social behaviour’ and experience ‘feelings of self-confidence’ (Carter and Almarez, 2014).  Among teenagers, secure attachments to both parents provide ‘additional protections’ (Duchesne & Ratelle, 2013; Al-Yagon, 2011), while – by contrast – getting on badly with even one parent doubles the risk of a young person’s engaging in anti-social behaviour (Blanden, 2006).

Elsewhere, academics are producing resources with a much stronger grasp on the evidence. The New South Wales Institute of Psychiatry in Australia, for example, has produced DVDs for new mothers, fathers and professionals to foster positive infant mental health, Getting to Know You and Hello Dad:  infant communication for fathers, which feature both fathers and mothers interacting positively with their babies and talking about their experiences. And Bringing fathers in, our own freely downloadable topic sheets, backed by research summaries, are designed to help professionals support infant mental health and early child development, through engaging with both fathers and mothers.

So where does this leave the recipients of Warwick University’s only-mums-matter guidance? For now, with a resource that stereotypes mothers as solely responsible for their infants’ mental health, and presents fathers as unnecessary.

We very much hope to persuade the funders of these materials to take the necessary steps to correct the gender stereotyping within them.  Infant mental health is far too important an issue to be undermined by mistakes of this kind.  We know that the funders really care and are passionate about this new focus on infant mental health, as are we; and that government is very concerned to increase fathers’ involvement from infancy onwards. So, before these materials get out there, sow mis-information and turn the clock back, let’s turn things round.  We can and we must.

We’d love to hear from you if you have examples of maternity and early years resources and services that have ignored, excluded or marginalised you as a father (or a father you know). Please get in touch via our Facebook page, or on Twitter using the hashtag #dadsexcluded and including our Twitter name @fatherhoodinst.



Al-Yagon, M., 2011.  Adolescents’ subtypes of attachment security with fathers and mothers and self-perceptions of socioemotional adjustment. Psychology, 2, pp.291-299

Blanden, J., 2006. ‘Bucking the trend’: What enables those who are disadvantaged in childhood to succeed later in life? Working Paper No 31 Corporate Document Services.  London:  Department for Work and Pensions.

Carter, J. and Almaraz, J., 2014.  Multiple Attachment Relationships: More Caregivers May Mean More Confidence to Behave Prosocially” (2014). Research on the Hill (Salt Lake City). Paper 11.  Accessed 13 April 2014:

Duchesne, S. and Ratelle, C.F., 2013. Attachment Security to mothers and fathers and the developmental trajectories of depressive symptoms in adolescence: shich parent for shich rajectory?  Journal of Youth and Adolescence, pp.1-14

Easterbrooks, M.A. and Goldberg, W.A., 1990.  Security of the toddler-parent attachment: relation to children’s sociopersonality functioning during kindergarten.  In Mark T. Greenberg, Dante Cicchetti, and E. Mark Cummings (eds) Attachment in the Preschool Years:  theory, research, and intervention

Eiden, R.D., Edwards, E.P. and Leonard, K.E., 2002. Mother-infant and father-infant attachment among families with alcoholic fathers.  Development and Psychopathology, 14(2), pp.253-278

Feinberg, M. E., Jones, D. E., Roettger, M., Solmeyer, A. and Hostetler, M. (under review). Long-Term Effects of Family Foundations: Children’s Internalizing, Externalizing, and School Adaptation.

Feinberg, M. E. and Kan, M. L., 2008. Establishing family foundations: Intervention effects on coparenting, parent/infant well-being, and parent-child relations. Journal of Family Psychology, 22, pp.253-263.

Feldman, R., Bamberger, E. and Kanat-Maymon, Y., 2013.  Parent-specific reciprocity from infancy to adolescence shapes children’s social competence and dialogical skills.  Attachment and Human Development, 5(4),pp.407-23

Fisher, J.R.W., Cabral de Mello, M., Patel, V. and Rahman, A., 2006. Maternal depression and newborn health. Newsletter for the Partnership of Maternal, Newborn & Child Health, 2. Geneva:  World Health Organisation

Fletcher, R., 2009.  Brief report: Promoting infant well being in the context of maternal depression by supporting the father.  Infant Mental Health Journal 30(1), pp.95-102.

Levendosky, A.A., Bogat, A.G. and Huth-Bocks, A.C., 2011. The influence of domestic violence on the development of the attachment relationship between mother and young child. Psychoanalytic Psychology, 28(4), pp.512-527

Ramchandani, P. G., Domoney, J., Sethna, V., Psychogiou, L., Vlachos, H. and Murray, L., 2013.  Do early father-infant interactions predict the onset of externalising behaviours in young children? Findings from a longitudinal cohort study.  Journal of Child Psychology & Psychiatry, 54(1), pp. 56-64


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