Decades of research and endless studies have shown that the more a father is involved in their child’s life, the more successful a child is likely to become. A father’s influence can determine a child’s grades at school, future achievements and even their social life.
With the above in mind, I was curious to know the impact of a father’s involvement in their child’s sleep routine. I was encouraged to discover a number of studies I reviewed noted that a father’s warmth and nurturance significantly predicts a child’s moral maturity.
As a sleep consultant, I deal primarily with mothers and yet I know that if there is a higher level of involvement from the father, this often results in more positive care. Such positive care is not only in relation to the father’s bonding with the baby but furthermore results in fewer night wakening’s.
When couples become parents, ‘does your child sleep?’ is one of the three biggest questions (if not the biggest) question of parenthood. We know the hardships of sleep deprivation – indeed, it is used as a means of an effective form of torture! – and we know that when a couple are fully engaged and supportive of one another the early days/months of being a new parent are less challenging.
That being said, sadly, society still seems to be unable to encourage and acknowledge the importance of the father when it comes to all aspects of their newborn child – including sleep.
Lifestyle is often an inhibitor to allowing parents to support each other, especially surrounding sleep and their child. Although the situation is improving, the failure of many companies to provide sufficient paternity leave means the mother is the primary carer for the child, and likely to be solely responsible for night time feeding and wakening.
A father’s own childhood experience with his parents, based on the more traditional separation of gender roles, compounded with unrealistic expectations all perpetuate the myth that the father should have a lesser role when it comes to helping support a child’s successful sleeping habits.
Within society we have grown up with the understanding that big boys don’t cry. We know, in fact, that big boys do cry and small ones even more so! A father’s relationship with his child’s cry is extremely important, and the ability for a father to develop his own coping mechanism with his child’s cry will benefit the child’s own development in the long run. Studies have shown that allowing a child to feel ‘heard’ by properly responding to his or her crying, will enable the child to feel heard later in life and consequently enables a deeper emotional bond with their parent. The more a father is able to explore his interpretation of his child’s cry the more emotionally available he will be for his child. Questions previously not encountered by father’s need to be addressed, such as how will I respond when my child is crying? Will I be able to differentiate a cry of protest, which is a healthy developmental response, from a cry of need?
This may sound daunting, but new fathers should keep in mind that parenting is tough, and we do not become parents overnight, but rather grow into the roles of mummy and daddy. Just like our relationship changes with our partner and we transition from being in love to being loved, we transition from being a new parent, feeling like a deer in headlights to gathering wisdom and calm as we follow our parenting journey.
Very often in those first few weeks and months, our child’s way of communicating is through cry – particularly around sleep time. Those early weeks and months, also sometimes known as the fourth trimester, are often a time when fathers feel most disconnected from their child and partner. Interestingly, it has been shown that when a father’s mood is low the best treatment is to have more contact with their baby.
In those early months, it is the job of the parent to enable their child to sleep. It is then after approximately five months that a developmental transition occurs and the child is able to get themselves to sleep. These first few months are crucial for the child to develop healthy sleeping habits, and earlier the father is on board, the better the outcome for the child, and the parents later in life.
In the beginning, a child needs both parents to build their sense of trust in the world and equip them with the necessary skills to grow and develop into happy, healthy humans. We must not underestimate the ‘father effect’. It is the exponential benefits that result from a father taking an active role in teaching our children. And, by teaching a child how to sleep we are giving them (and us!) a priceless gift.
My advice to all new parent’s is, don’t be afraid to ask questions: equality works both ways. Even if its having a conversation with a fellow parent over a coffee. Make time to appreciate that you won’t know everything instantly, that’s the point of trial and error. Also, make a schedule that works for you, yes fathers may be working during the week but make sure you make time during the weekend, or try and divide time for when you each put your baby to sleep. Remember, your partners, and an open dialogue is crucial because once you see your baby sleeping, looking like a little cherub, or they give you the biggest smile when you walk through the door, then it will all be worth it.
Julie Mallon is a British trained nurse, midwife and sleep consultant and Founder of NurtureToSleep, a sleep consultancy. Julie has completed a 15 week programme with the Infant Mental Health Promotion provided by the University of Toronto and is currently registered with the International Maternity and Parenting Institute. She became certified with popular North American Sleep Coach and author Kim West in June 2016.