While some children are grateful to have been brought up in homes where a father figure was present during their early stages of life and upbringing, some can only imagine what it is like and the impacts thereof.
Growing up in a loving, caring and nurturing environment is not only a wonderful experience a child could have, but it is also a necessity. It is critical for any child’s physical, social, emotional and intellectual stimulation, and brain development. When a father is involved and plays his role, this can have an even greater impact on the child’s life and future.
If you live in South Africa, however, you may well be aware that many children who should have fathers in their lives, navigate their way through life without their father’s participation. But this can change if fathers can realise the power and the impact they can have on their children’s development and future by just being present, especially in the early phases of their growth.
When talking about fathers, biological fathers might be the first thought that comes to mind. But, any man who plays a fatherhood role in a child’s life is their father.
The magic number 1000!
It’s quite common for people to highlight the importance of a father when it comes to raising a boy-child. While this is true, a father’s involvement is instrumental to a child’s development and well-being – regardless of the child’s sex or gender, and whether or not they live together full-time.
Did you know? If a father is present for the first 1000 days, there is a higher chance of them remaining in a child’s life.
You might be asking yourself, ‘what’s the big deal about 1000 days?’.
The first 1000 days of a child’s life refers to the period from conception (about 270 days of pregnancy) and the first two years after birth (365+365 days), depending on children’s individual differences. Various scientific studies around the world confirm that the first 1000 days is the period of most rapid brain growth, and that the child develops in response to the environment, especially when it comes to affectionate and responsive interactions with adults.
Affectionate and responsive interactions are about love and how quickly and positively adults react or respond to the child’s needs and behaviour. These interactions can make young children feel safe and cared for, and they can also support the development of positive communication and social behaviours of the child.
As children grow older, this receptivity decreases, making the first 1000 days period of life most amenable to positive experiences and most vulnerable to stress and danger. One has to really take advantage of this period for the benefit of their child.
So, why is the father’s involvement significant during the first 1000 days of their child’s life?
Here are five reasons:
1. Promotes positive well-being and healthy child development during pregnancy
As unimaginable as it may sound, babies can recognise their parents’ voices from the womb from as young as 32 weeks old. Studies on infant-father attachment indicate that it is crucial for fathers to begin bonding with their child during the pregnancy period by, for instance, listening to the baby’s heartbeat, and singing or reading to the baby while in the womb.
You’ve probably seen pregnancy photos where a father is massaging or touching the mother’s stomach, placing their ear against the unborn baby or kissing them. That too is a form of bonding. Of course, this level of intimacy depends on the type of relationship between the mother and the father figure.
A father’s presence during this time also benefits the mother carrying the baby. The father can provide practical support, like taking on essential daily tasks such as preparing meals, cleaning the house and doing laundry.
Hormonal changes during pregnancy can make women emotional – they become irritable, have mood swings and are teary one minute but lively and cheerful the next. The father can be there to support them through this roller coaster ride. Their support promotes positive well-being and healthy behaviours for the mother. Furthermore, the development of the foetus, birth weight and premature birth are also positively impacted indirectly.
When a mother feels supported they may gain the courage to seek necessary help during their pregnancy, live a healthy lifestyle, such as eating healthy and exercising and avoid unhealthy behaviours that are harmful to the baby.
2. Provides practical and emotional support after birth
Caring for a baby is a full-time job, especially after birth and during the child’s early years. Mothers can attest to this! Therefore, a father’s presence continues to be helpful to the mother and child beyond the 270 days of pregnancy. Apart from doing more house chores than usual to support the mother, fathers play a role in influencing important decisions such as early birth registration, breastfeeding and its duration.
You’ve probably heard of or witnessed someone with postnatal depression if you have not experienced it. With this type of depression, the mother can find it difficult to bond with the baby, have sleepless nights, lose her appetite and become irritable. It can take a toll on some women, especially new mothers, and can even lead to major depression later in life. If the father of the child is in the picture, their practical and emotional support to the mother has a huge potential to lessen the chances of depression after giving birth.
Women who do not have positive relationships with their child’s or children’s father due to lack of support, are unfortunately vulnerable to depression after birth. Also, if the father has negative attitudes towards the mother’s rearing style or choices, or is abusive to the mother, the mother is most likely to suffer from depression.
On the other hand, those who are supported in stable partnerships experience lower levels of family stress, are less likely to suffer mental health problems and derive greater satisfaction from their roles as mothers.
3. Reduces rate of child abuse by the father
Child abuse is a common topic in South African media, making it one of the pressing issues in our society. The Optimus Study on Child Abuse, Violence and Neglect in South Africa in 2015 shared that the police statistics recorded over 60 000 reported cases of sexual offences a year. Other studies also point out that men are overrepresented as perpetrators of child abuse, particularly in its most severe forms which include sexual and physical abuse.
Thankfully, there’s also research that shows that early father-and-child bonding has been associated with a reduced risk of fathers abusing their children in future.
Fathers who nurture and take significant responsibility for childcare from an early age are significantly less likely to sexually abuse them. They develop such a strong connection that it decreases the likelihood of any maltreatment. This shows just how positive the effect of bonding with the child during the first 1000 days of their life is!
4. Promotes stronger physical and emotional development
Every child loves to play! Playtime is an exciting time for any child, whether indoors or outdoors, more physical or less physical. Fathers often play with their children in a more physical way than some mothers. The activities can include tickling, chasing, piggyback rides, running around, climbing and ball games. All of these appear to promote healthy physical development of a child.
Play is also an important way to teach children emotional regulation, which includes managing and expressing emotions in a socially appropriate manner. Rough and tumble play with the father, for instance, can teach children how to deal with aggressive impulses and physical contact without losing control of their emotions. This is also beneficial as they grow up.
Physical play is also linked to increased oxytocin (love hormone) in a child. It contributes to enabling the father and child to bond.
5. Improves cognitive well-being and social behaviour
When fathers are involved in early childhood, their child’s brain develops better and therefore enables them to solve problems better, and have improved language skills, intellectual functioning and academic achievements as they grow.
During the children’s early years, if their fathers respond quickly to their cries and play together, they are more emotionally secure, and confident to explore their surroundings, and as they grow older, have better social connections with peers. Several studies suggest that the children are also more sociable and popular with other children throughout early childhood.
A relationship and strong bond with the father or father figure help children prepare for future relationships and affirms their sense of belonging, contributing positively to their mental health.
Every child deserves to grow up in a loving, caring and nurturing home. While mothers do a good job of raising children, if the father is involved, the impact on the child’s development can be greater. Fathers can start with the first 1000 days of their child’s life, and the rest will follow.
Author: Dimpho Lephaila – Communications Associate at Innovation Edge