New Dad: Getting to grips with the new realities

The bond between your partner and new baby may be strong, but that shouldn't leave any less chance for you to take up the parenting baton

Once you’ve brought your new baby back home it can appear as though there’s not all that much to do for a new dad, particularly if your partner is breastfeeding. Baby cries, eats, sleeps and then cries, eats and sleeps again, and may seem at her most interactive when she’s got wind! But if you want to develop a close and nurturing relationship with your baby and harmonious team work with your partner, the first few weeks are actually rather important, as they may set the tone for how your family works. So here are some ideas for how you can set off family life on a strong footing.

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Reading up – Given that nowadays most families are quite small, and traditionally men haven’t been much involved in childcare, most men probably won’t have had all that much experience with babies and small children when they become fathers. But even if you have had plenty of experience, maybe helping out in your own family, it’s a very good idea to read up on what caring for a new baby involves before she actually arrives, particularly as safety advice may have changed in recent years. Find out what your new baby will be able to do, what she will need, how often she is likely to eat and how much she is likely to sleep etc. It won’t prepare you fully for the thunderbolt of parenthood and it won’t tell you how to handle every situation, but it can help you feel a little more familiar with being a dad.

Getting stuck in as much as possible – If you’re serious about feeling part of the baby-care team then you need to roll up your sleeves and get involved in all aspects of your baby’s care from day one, when you’re both getting your heads around how this baby thing works.

It can be very tempting to confine your ‘dad time’ to all the fun baby things (like playtime, cuddling and bath time) while leaving all the more onerous (like settling your crying baby, sterilising equipment, night feeds etc.) and smelly (those fruity nappy changes) duties to your other half. But even if your other half doesn’t seem to mind this kind of selective parenting, it can backfire quite quickly, affecting your relationship with both child and mother. If you don’t learn for yourself how to do all those less appealing tasks then your baby won’t be used to you doing them, and may resist when you do try. You might like to take refuge for a while in the idea that your partner can settle your crying baby much better than you can, but don’t be surprised later if you feel quite rejected by your baby if she pushes you away and consistently looks to mum when comfort is needed. Your partner meanwhile, is likely to resent you skimming off the fun stuff so trouble between you may be brewing.

Learning on the job – If your partner is breastfeeding then it’s easy to take a step back without really meaning to: her role as nurturer appears self-evident. But remember that your partner wasn’t born with superior parenting skills to you: You’ll both be learning by doing, and you’ll only end up knowing less if you do less. To avoid problems take turns with as many aspects of childcare as you can, not just changing nappies, but bathing, feeding (if you’re using bottles and if not then as soon as you start to wean your baby onto solids from six months), putting down to sleep and reading bedtime stories. If you’re using equipment like a steriliser, bottle warmer or baby carrier then find out how it works straight away, so you don’t have to keep asking your partner how to do things.

Feeding time! – If you’re bottle feeding your baby then how you can help out with feeds is quite obvious: Do your share of feeds – and not just during the day -, take part in organising cleaning and sterilisation and become a dab-hand at winding. If your partner is breastfeeding then you may think that you can’t contribute, but that’s very far from the truth: Studies have shown that the support of her partner is often of the most decisive factors in how long a woman manages to keep breastfeeding. And supporting your partner in breastfeeding goes much further than sometimes offering a shoulder for your baby to wind on, there are plenty of suggestions in this article.

Family planning – The early weeks and months may establish a pattern for the coming few years so it helps to think about how you’d like your partnership to work and what common goals you’d like to work towards for the family – hopefully you’ve begun to do this even before baby was born. Once you’ve established what your aims are, then it will be easier to reach agreement and make compromises on the details of how you achieve them, particularly when it comes to deciding who needs to do what. There’s no one correct model for how to do things and how to make your partnership work, the important thing is that you both agree on, and are happy with, a general approach.

Playing second fiddle – While the love you feel for your partner may well deepen when she becomes the mother of your child, you’re going to have to get used to the idea that, for the time being at least, she is first and foremost the mother of your baby, with her role as your partner coming in second. It can be difficult getting used to this sudden lack of attention and many men feel at least a little jealous of their baby for a time. But the more supported your partner feels, the easier it will be to keep up warmth and affection for each other, and the more energy she’ll have for you once baby’s needs have all been met.

Being flexible – Before your baby came along your life was probably a whole lot more predictable, and team work meant doing things together. Now though, it may seem that your team work involves more ‘tag team’ than togetherness: One cooks alone while the other settles the baby, one eats while the other calms or feeds a fussing baby, one gets an early night so that they can manage the night feed, and so on. You may quickly develop a strong routine that you can rely on, but for most new parents it takes weeks, or months to settle into anything approaching a routine. In the meantime it’s perfectly normal for you and your partner’s needs (eating, sleeping, time alone, affection) to be met in an adhoc fashion and staying as flexible as you can can help you and your partner though.

Communicating with your partner – Once the first rush of parenthood has settled down and one of you goes back to work (probably you at this early stage, unless you’re taking on the role of full-time dad) you’ll face yet another period of adjustment that can put some strain on your relationship. You’ll most like both be overtired, at least until your baby starts to sleep through the night at some undecided point in the future, and overworked. In these circumstances it’s easy for tensions and disagreements between you and your partner to build quickly. It’s not easy to make time to talk, and it may require more energy than you feel you can muster, but it really is worth making the effort to regularly talk about who you both think things are going, so you have a chance to appreciate each other’s points of view before simmering disagreements and discontentments build into resentment and conflict. Talking isn’t always enough, however, you need to make sure you’re actively listening to each other also.

Keeping it up! –
Even if you start off well keeping up can be difficult once you go back to work, and even more so if you need to travel during the week. It can really undermine your parenting confidence (and your partner’s confidence in you) if you need to frequently ask her how x or y works, and your over-busy, overtired partner is likely to find it frustrating if she often needs to explain things to you.

“My partner did try to help and it worked well when he was at home at the beginning, but once he was back at work he didn’t seem able to keep up with our baby’s changing needs, or remember how some simple things were done, and to be honest, he seemed to lose interest. I found that, with the number of questions he asked about how to do things, it was often just quicker to do them myself.” Said ThinkBaby member Judith.

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It can be difficult to switch from the demands of work to the different, but equally challenging, demands of home. But once you go back to work it is important that you make an effort to stay engaged with what’s happening at home and how your baby’s needs are changing. If you fall out of step too far the risk is that your partner may lose patience and you may feel that you’re constantly being told you’re doing things wrong, or being patronised. If this happens then it should help to talk about it and work out together how you can improve things for both of you.

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