Why fatherhood scares many dads-to-be

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Travis Bull vividly remembers discovering his partner was pregnant for the first time. "I had mixed feelings – excitement, along with some apprehension about how it would affect our lives, both good and bad.

"I also wondered if I'd be any good at it. Would I be able to stop the baby crying or change nappies?"

When the baby arrived, the blogger was elated but there was still some worry. "You do wonder though how you'll go through the next 12 months when you see how fragile they are. There's always a fear you might drop or hurt him accidentally while picking him up."

Dr Nick Carr, a GP and author of What Happens Now?, a book to help new dads navigate the world of babies and parenting, says many dads-to-be have these fears – and it's more common than realised.

"[Most fathers] aren't experienced in dealing with small babies, they didn't see their own fathers do it, and we blokes aren't very good at expressing our feelings," he says. "We tend to tough it out or put on a brave face, but behind the bravado, many men are more uncertain about parenting than they let on."

The fears can start early, too, and this can have an effect on how the dad bonds with their baby. Researchers from Santa Clara University say that it's not uncommon for many fathers to experience a detachment or indifference during pregnancy or even after the baby is born. Many don't talk about it, hoping it'll pass, leaving women wondering why their partner appears not to connect with their baby.

Dr Carr says there are a few warning signs partners can watch for once the baby has arrived, such as if he "tends to avoid holding or wanting to comfort the baby".

"If he's saying things like, 'I don't really know how to do that' or 'that's your job' or 'I can't feed her anyway so why don't you go and pick her up?' it means there might be a problem."

Common fears and how to ease them

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According to Dr Carr, dads often worry about the practical issues of how to hold the baby, and how to settle a crying or distressed bub. Financial worries while the mum is on maternity leave are also thrown into the mix.

Clinical psychologist Azza Brown says that emotional issues are also normal. "Sometimes they also worry about how the partner relationship will change once the baby arrives and becomes the focus of attention. Jealous feelings are common, and dads feel a little insignificant or resent this change in the early years of their child's life."

So what can a mum do to help a dad with his feelings? Even before the baby is born, Ms Brown recommends the dad-to-be attends antenatal appointments and classes to help understand what being a father means. "Attend sessions that focus on dads and looking after children – it'll help with lessening the anxiety that goes with becoming a new parent," she says.

Getting into the habit of checking in to talk honestly about emotions and how each partner is coping is also a good idea. 

Once the baby arrives, Dr Carr recommends giving the dad and bub a chance to spend time bonding. "Avoid hovering or giving rapid instructions when Dad is in charge of the baby, as it affects his confidence levels," said Dr Carr. When dads start handling babies on their own during bath time, for example, they become more confident in their abilities.

He also points out that breastfeeding isn't the only thing that helps settle a crying baby, suggesting that dads try going for a walk, cuddling or singing a song to their child to help soothe them.

And the top advice from Travis Bull, now a father of three and co-founder of the blog Tackle Nappy that's just for dads? He suggests that other new dads try to "just enjoy it".

"It does change your life for the better," he says. "There might be things you miss out on from time to time [being a dad], but you make up for it in other ways by looking out for and caring for this little baby you created."

BeyondBlue has created a free guide to help dads through the first 12 months of parenthood: get it here.