Fathers, it’s time to step up

30 July 2021

Dads play a key role in the first 1,000 days of a child life, and a mother’s well-being.

Among the myriad of challenges that a man might potentially face throughout his life, being a father may very well be the most difficult of them all.

From changing a child’s diapers to playing with them, almost nothing else has such far reaching implications on an individual’s future as being an involved father to a child. Educators and developmental psychologists across the world agree. A child’s first 1,000 days is a time of tremendous potential to nurture a healthy generation for a strong future for the family and the nation. It is also being a time of enormous vulnerability.

Research from the Strong Foundations project, a collaboration between several public and private organisations in Australia, also found that factors such as the age, health, and well-being of both mother and father prior to the child’s conception significantly affects the integrity of the embryo right from the very beginning.

“Beyond developmental outcomes, active fathering is also an opportunity to not only strengthen the bond between a father and child, but also the family as a whole,” said Richard Magnus, Deputy Chairman of Temasek Foundation. “This is especially crucial when taking into account the importance of building strong and healthy families that eventually contribute towards community and social resilience.” Temasek Foundation has been working with partners in Singapore to pilot programmes to build up capabilities, push for innovations and seek different pathways and models of care.

Benefits to children

Children who experience their first 1,000 days in the presence of an involved father enjoy several development outcomes over those that do not.

Associate Professor Helen Chen, Head and Senior Consultant, Department of Psychological Medicine, KK Women’s and Children’s Hospital (KKH), said, “When a father is bonded with his new-born, it lays a strong foundation for their relationship which helps to foster a healthy self-esteem in the child. This in turn, buffers them for stress-related problems and mental health conditions later in life. As children grow, the rough and tumble play with the father, provides the experience of thrill and excitement. The outpouring of bonding chemicals such as oxytocin and dopamine will help enhance the relationship and build mental resilience, as well as physical coordination and social skills.”

“Over time, with a strong foundation laid in the father and baby’s bond, as child grows up, they will better relate in relationships with others. For daughters, the fathers’ love ensures that they value themselves in relationships with future partners and feel confident about their self-value. For sons, fathers with a close connection can help guide them through the difficult teenage years when peer influences are strong,” Assoc Prof Chen added.

While not every change that occurs within the first 1,000 days has a permanent effect, children may find it increasingly difficult to make up for any negative experiences and environments that they may have had growing up. Studies have shown that when the father is absent, there are higher rates of conduct problems in children, such as truancy and aggression. There is also a higher risk of depression, and possibly a shift towards an unconscious anger towards males, and therefore influencing patterns of relating to males.

A father should therefore strive to invest both time and care into a child’s life. From small actions such as regularly changing diapers, to bigger actions such as cultivating a safe, calm, and loving home, such actions go a long way in driving lifelong health and well-being of a child.

Benefits to mothers

When fathers have their first child, it is often easy for them to forget the well-being of the mother. Fathers not only play a crucial role in sharing the workload of parenting and household chores, but also are providers of emotional support for their spouses.

The negative impacts of the lack of emotional support for mothers is clear. A local study by GUSTO (Growing Up in Singapore Towards healthy Outcomes), a collaborative research effort involving academic partners across Singapore and the international space, found that maternal depression and anxiety negatively impacts foetal neurodevelopment, potentially impacting school readiness, infant temperament, and behaviour.

A father must be proactive in alleviating any stress and anxiety a mother may have throughout the course of motherhood. Simple actions such as being a listening ear and a pillar of emotional support to his spouse, to larger actions such as seeing to her needs while she breastfeeds, will go a long way towards improving the mother’s well-being.

Supporting fathers

Associate Professor Lourdes Mary Daniel, Head and Senior Consultant, Department of Child Development, KKH, shares the need to provide more support to fathers. She said, “Just as mothers need to be prepared for pregnancy, so do fathers, who are sometimes forgotten in the pregnancy journey. Many programmes encourage the attendance of husbands, but often focus on the mother and the developing foetus. But, the pregnancy is also a big change for the husbands, especially if they are going to be first-time fathers.”

Local data has shown that first time fathers face a whole range of emotions – from being happy and excited, to being calm, to being shocked. They also need information, not just about the pregnancy, but about managing their own emotions, their responses to being fathers, their fears and their concerns. Research also shows the amount of information they receive affects the level of their involvement in the pregnancy. They also require support from the expectant mother, healthcare professionals, friends and family and want to be informed, involved and respected.

Just as mothers can be depressed during pregnancy, fathers can also experience feelings of depression, which is also associated with behavioural problems in their children and can affect the couple’s relationship. They too, need to be supported, in the same way that mothers with depressive symptoms are. “Fathers should not ignore their own feelings, while they do their best to support their wives during this challenging time. They should seek information and support as well,” Assoc Prof Lourdes stressed.

In the same way that mothers are taught how to have a strong and health dyad relationship with their children, fathers should be encouraged in the same way, not just for a father-child dyad, but for a triad of child and BOTH parents. Assoc Prof Lourdes concluded, “Just like the mothers, fathers bring all of their experiences and emotions to their relationship to the baby and the mother. So, information and support need to be father-specific as well.”

It’s not too late to step up

In June 2021, Temasek Foundation organised the Temasek Shophouse Conversations titled, First 1,000 Days – Maternal and Child Wellness, and invited an international panel of speakers who spoke on the importance of the first 1,000 days to a child’s future.

One of the panellists who spoke at the event, Dr Tim Moore, Senior Research Fellow at the Murdoch Children’s Research Institute, said “Children need a small core of caregivers to provide them with attuned and nurturing care, which can be made far easier when both parents support one another in sharing equal responsibility.”

So to all fathers who are out there, it really isn’t too late to start showing some tender loving care to your wives or to listen to what bothers her emotionally. Being an involved father is a work in progress and will be no easy task.

But eventually, you’ll get to see the fruits of your labour as your child grows up to enjoy a healthier and stronger future.