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Supporting father-baby bonding in neonatal units has health benefits for babies, international research shows.

Having skin to skin contact with their fathers during their first days of life provides significant health benefits for infants in neonatal units, according to the research, led by Edith Cowan University.

“Babies that had early skin to skin care from their fathers had better blood glucose levels, lower levels of the stress hormone cortisol in their saliva and were more settled,” researcher and ECU lecturer in the School of Nursing and Midwifery, Dr Esther Adama said.

An international review in 2016 of 12 studies found the benefits of father skin-to-skin care for infant health included: increased baby’s temperature, similar mother skin-to-skin care; better blood glucose levels; lower salivary cortisol level, indicating less stress; and more settled babies.

“Fathers have innate biologically-based abilities to bond with and care for babies; these are especially important for the health and safety of babies in situations of stress and risk.

“There is also evidence that early skin to skin contact with their fathers resulted in babies gaining weight faster in the first 28 days after birth,” Dr Adama said.

Research from Taiwan showed supporting father-baby skin-to-skin care improved rates of exclusive breastfeeding in the first three months, even when not accompanied by any additional education about breastfeeding itself.

A study that involved about 1,000 fathers and 800 mothers in Australia, Canada and New Zealand found greater weight gain in babies and more exclusive breastfeeding at 21 days in Family Integrated Care.

Research showed that men who were more engaged in caring for their babies experienced stronger hormonal and neurobiological changes that helped forge a stronger connection between fathers and their babies, Dr Adama said.

“Fathers typically describe the opportunity to bond with their babies, particularly skin-to-skin care, in glowing terms of gratitude, happiness and love. These sensations are underpinned by hormonal and neurobiological changes that take place in fathers when they care for their babies, as also happens with mothers.”

However, the review highlighted barriers that prevented more fathers from being highly engaged with their babies in neonatal units.

Fathers were subject to different social expectations from mothers and this shaped how they responded to the situation and how they were treated by neonatal staff, Dr Adama said.

“We identified three particular attitudes, some would say myths that may be preventing greater involvement from men in the crucial first 28 days after birth. “These were that men are expected to work and financially support their family, that women are perceived to be better at caring and that men should be strong and avoid appearing vulnerable.”

The researchers made 12 recommendations for neonatal teams to focus on.

  • assess the needs of mother and father individually;
  • consider individual needs and wants in family care plans;
  • ensure complete flexibility of access to the neonatal unit for fathers;
  • gear parenting education towards co-parenting;
  • actively promote father-baby bonding;
  • be attentive to fathers hiding their stress;
  • inform fathers directly not just via the mother;
  • facilitate peer-to-peer communication for fathers;
  • differentiate and analyse by gender in service evaluations;
  • train staff to work with fathers and to support co-parenting;
  • develop a father-friendly audit tool for neonatal units; and
  • organise an international consultation to update guidelines for neonatal care, including those of UNICEF.

The study was published in the Journal of Neonatal Nursing