David Gee says that when his son, Jackson, arrived, his main thought was “I hope I don’t mess this up.”
Gee, who was working full-time, devoted all the hours he could to Jackson (and later to his second baby, Zelda) in the mornings and the evenings, becoming “the bath and bedtime guy.” As his confidence grew, he came to feel like he was truly on Jackson’s radar. “It’s when your baby stops looking at you and starts looking to you,” says Gee.
James di Properzio, a father of four and co-author of The Baby Bonding Book for Dads, says that members of today’s “transitional generation” of men are much more eager to be involved in their kids’ lives than their fathers ever were. About 25 percent of Canadian fathers take some sort of parental leave, according to Statistics Canada‚ even if it’s only a couple of weeks. But those numbers have been on the rise. (In Quebec, 75 percent of fathers take some kind of pat leave.)
Whether you’re home with your family full-time, fitting in quality time at night or on weekends, or simply a dad struggling to bond with baby, here’s how you can connect with your newborn.
Don’t underestimate the importance of cuddles
Any chance to get cuddly is a good one, says di Properzio, even if it’s just a quick nuzzle after a change. “That face-to-face contact is so crucial,” he says. “Their mirror neurons are going like crazy, trying to pick up cues and learning to mimic you and understand your reactions.” The feeling of security that closeness provides is just as important. If you can do skin-to-skin snuggle sessions, with your baby nestled on your bare chest, even better.
Take the night shift
Allowing your partner to get more sleep is good for the whole household, so hop out of bed if there’s an opportunity to bottle-feed or do some soothing. It may be hard to appreciate this when you’re groggy, but try to savour this time. “In the middle of the night, when nobody’s looking, you can relax one-on-one with the baby,” says di Properzio.
Get involved in feeding and diaper changes
If your partner is able to pump breastmilk or if you’re formula-feeding, spend some quality quiet time with the baby as you bottle-feed. In fact, you may be the best one for the job: Dads tend to have more success getting a breastfed baby to occasionally take a bottle, since breastfed babies sometimes smell the scent of milk on their mom. And sometimes, babies wake and think they need to eat, when really they just need to be rocked or soothed back to sleep.
Mastering every messy detail of the change table, whenever you can, will also make you the MVP. Add in a song, tickle game or round of peekaboo that can become your special tradition.
Wake up with the baby for one-on-one time
A word to the wise: Babies are usually in a better mood in the morning than during those fussy evening witching hours when you get home from work. Think of mornings as your special time instead: Offer to take the baby after the early morning feeding and let your partner sleep an extra 30 minutes. Sure, you have a busy workday ahead, but there’s no reason you can’t make a habit of fixing breakfast while wearing the baby in a sling or carrier, or drag a Moses basket or bouncy chair into the kitchen. You can even set up a bouncy chair in the bathroom while you shower (secure your infant in the straps and leave the shower curtain a little open so you can keep on eye on them). This way, you’re bonding with your new sidekick and building up goodwill with your slightly-more-rested partner at the same time.
Comfort baby when they’re in distress
Bonding with your baby when they’re happy and sweet is nice in theory, but it’s not reality.
“Bonding is also about when the baby cries,” says Hogan Hilling, author of Rattled: What He’s Thinking When You’re Pregnant. Your ability to contend with challenging moments is crucial to becoming a confident parent, so learn to be fearless in the face of fussiness. You need to become the baby whisperer.
We know it’s easier said than done. (Your partner, if she’s nursing, has the secret weapon—lactating breasts—and she’s had an extra nine months to develop a bond with your infant.) But don’t immediately hand the baby off to your partner; instead, resolve to exude a cool and calm “don’t worry, I got this” attitude. (It’s reassuring to both the baby and your co-parent.)
You may have to get creative with silly faces or songs. Some babies settle with white noise (like a hair dryer or stove fan). Memorize paediatrician Harvey Karp’s five “S” tips for soothing a fussy newborn. (They include swaddling, sucking, shushing, swinging or bouncing, and side or stomach lying, which means holding the baby prone along your forearm—google it.)
And believe us: The patience and sense of humour you tap into during these first few months as a dad will also be useful in a year or two, when you’ll need to become a pro at redirecting and deflecting epic toddler tantrums.