It’s easy to assume maternal-child interactions are the most important part of early development.
After all, it seems like all a young infant wants to do is breastfeed and snuggle with her mama.
Can dad’s role really be that important when it comes to a child’s overall development?
Dads, You Can Help Your Baby Learn Faster, Study Finds
Early childhood development has long been an area of research.
The more we learn about how our brains develop, the more we understand how to help our children reach their best.
Until recently, nearly all the research regarding early development focused on maternal-child interactions. Little research focused on the role dads can play during infancy and toddlerhood.
Fortunately, there’s been a shift and more research is coming out about the importance of a dad’s role in early learning.
In fact, a new study has found an involved dad may mean an infant will learn faster.
Dads, your role is very important!
How Does A Dad’s Involvement Impact Baby’s Learning?
Researchers at King’s College London observed interactions between dads and their infants at three months of age and again at 24 months.
They observed the interactions at three months to see what impact the type of interactions at this age might have on their learning.
In short, lead researcher Professor Paul Ramchandani summed up the results:
“Even as early as three months, these father-child interactions can positively predict cognitive development almost two years later, so there’s something probably quite meaningful for later development, and that really hasn’t been shown much before.”
When dads were interacting with their babies in a positive way (e.g. talking, silly noises, singing, etc.) during floor play, and when they were interactive while reading to their three month olds, researchers saw higher cognitive scores at 24 months.
On why less interaction could lead to lower cognitive scores, researchers said, “More withdrawn fathers also may provide a less stimulating social environment, which may thus [have an] impact [on] the child’s cognitive skills.”
Babies are like sponges. They soak up their environment. If the environment is lacking in positive interactions, stimulation, and general opportunities to learn social and cognitive skills (e.g. language, shapes, colors, etc.) it can impact their learning and social behaviour.
How Can Research Show How A Father’s Interactions Impact Learning?
As parents, we want to do what’s best for our children. Evidence, which is found through research, can be a vital way to help us shape our parenting.
Even with evidence, many of us remember our cousin Rob, or our sister Suzie and think, “but they did X and were fine, does research really matter?”
Anecdotes, or personal experiences, certainly have a role in making parenting choices. But evidence helps us see more of the bigger picture. It’s completely possible for a child with an absent father to still thrive – plenty of personal experiences show this.
However, research helps us make informed parenting decisions which are likely to help our children reach their potential (remember each individual is unique).
For this study, researchers looked at 128 father-baby pairs. Fathers were video recorded interacting with their three month olds for three minutes and later, recorded reading to the child at 24 months. These interactions were assessed independently by trained researchers who scored the fathers’ interactions.
The researchers analysed the data while considering factors such as income and age. They found a positive correlation between the level the men engaged with their babies at three months and how those children later scored in the cognitive tests (how well they could identify shapes, colors, and so on).
Children will eventually learn these things, but scoring higher earlier means they were learning faster and setting the foundation for future learning.
How Can Dads Best Interact With Their Babies?
So, the research shows the more dads interact with their babies at three months, the more they learn by 24 months. What exactly should dads be doing then? After all, most three month olds still sleep or eat the majority of the day.
It doesn’t actually take much to have positive and meaningful interactions with baby. They don’t need fancy toys with bright lights and batteries (in fact, those may not be best for them), they simply need attention, physical comfort and exposure to language.
As you develop a bond with your baby, you can use the same time to be interactive and expose them to language and learning.
Some ways to interact with an infant include:
- Talking about the toy you’re showing her, describing its shape and colour.
- Singing songs, play hand/finger games, and play peek-a-boo.
- Talking to your baby about what you’re doing (e.g. “I’m going to change your diaper. Now we’re going to get in the bath. Oh, look at this yellow rubber ducky!”).
- Wearing your baby – when they’re close to you and higher up (versus a pram) they’re more likely to observe and hear your interactions with others (more exposure to language), and you may be more likely to engage in a “conversation” with your baby.
- Play with your baby. Play is vital to a child’s development and is something you can do even when they’re little. As they grow, continue to play with them.
How Important Are Dads For A Child’s Development?
While early childhood research tends to focus on mother-baby interactions, more researchers have begun including dad. The results speak for themselves, dads play a big role!
Research as early as 30 minutes after birth has shown that early skin to skin with dad is an important first step for dad-baby pairs.
Other research has found dad’s mood can greatly impact a child’s learning and social behaviour. A dad’s positive interactions with his child has important benefits.
In fact, this current study found the same results. Ramchandani found the children whose fathers displayed more withdrawn and depressive behaviours in father-infant interactions scored lower marks in the cognitive tests.
A dad’s interaction with his infant can also impact a child’s social behaviour. Research has found infants with less positive interactions with dad are more likely to exhibit behaviour problems in toddlerhood.
The research is very clear, a dad can have a massive positive influence on his child’s learning and behaviour. It’s also clear these interactions are important even from the first day of life.
Dads, you have a big role, even if it seems your infant is always content with her mama. Make it a point to bond early and have attentive interactions with your little one and you’re likely to see benefits that last a very long time.