Fathers of premature babies: your presence and your cuddles matter. That's the key finding of a new study which highlights the benefits of the father-baby bond for boosting the health of sick and premmie babies in neonatal units.
"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," said Dr Esther Adama, who lead the research at Edith Cowan University. "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."
The study, published in the Journal of Neonatal Nursing, examined the existing literature on men's experiences in neonatal units. From the more than fifty articles, a number of key themes emerged.
Dads admitted feeling alone, stressed, torn between work and responsibilities at home and not wanting to show just how much they, too, were hurting:
I have never been this stressed before….I take care of the other children at home and of my job, but I also need to be here – I want to be here as well."
"As a father, you feel left out."
"I don't want to be weak in front of my wife. I don't think she knows how bad I am hurting right now."
"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," Dr Adama says.
And yet, the benefits to babies are clear.
"We believe that supporting the father-baby bond and supporting co-parenting between the mother and the father benefits the health of the baby, for example, through improved weight gain and oxygen saturation and enhanced rates of breastfeeding," the authors write.
And it goes both ways.
"Research has shown that men who are more engaged in caring for their babies experience stronger hormonal and neurobiological changes that help to forge a stronger connection between fathers and their babies," Dr Adama says.
The authors note that new understanding of biology and the neurobiology of fatherhood highlights father-baby skin-to-skin as being particularly important.
"Skin-to-skin care has a unique role in helping fathers to build confidence as equal carers, not just "helpers", and to discover the joy of loving their baby,' they write.
The researchers suggest a number of ways neonatal units can boost dads' involvement:
- Involve fathers in decision-making and help them to understand the unit's technology.
- Make neonatal units accessible at all hours for fathers, so they can visit around work commitments.
- Provide the opportunity for overnight stays.
- Assess fathers' and mothers' needs separately as individuals
- Allow fathers to see other men in the unit spending time with their babies.
- Communicate with fathers directly rather than solely via the mother.
"Two people will understand the information in more diverse ways, can discuss and support each other after, and one can ask questions the other might not feel comfortable to ask," they write.
Melinda Cruz, Founder of Miracle Babies Foundation, Australia's leading organisation for premature and sick newborns, says the findings reinforce what we have long known: "that fathers not only need to but want to play a bigger role in the NICU and should be supported and encouraged to do so."
"When a baby is in care, often the focus becomes baby and mum however, it affects the entire family unit," she says, adding that it can be really hard for a dad to feel like he is on the outside watching in. "At the Foundation, fathers are always part of the conversation and we offer support through information, education and the promotion of dad's involvement in hospital, especially kangaroo (skin-to-skin) care."
Dads can also access peer-to-peer support and speak to another father who has "been there" through the Miracle Babies Foundation's NurtureProgram.
"Our priority is to care for the emotional wellbeing of the entire family so they can thrive not only during their hospital stay but once they go home and beyond," Ms Cruz says.
In Australia one in 10 babies are born prematurely and approximately 15 per cent of all babies need admittance into a Newborn Intensive Care Unit or Special Care Nursery.
NurtureLine: 1300 622 243
Find more information about the NutureProgram here