International Fathers' Mental Health Day
A guest Blog by Prof Minesh Khashu
June 18th 2018
The thought of an International Fathers Mental Health day brings mixed emotions. On one hand, I am pleased that something useful is being done to raise awareness by the likes of Mark Williams and Dr Andy Mayers and many others across the world. On the other hand, I feel disappointed that things have come to such a pass that a special day is required to raise awareness. It begs the question: What has gone wrong and why?
I am not planning to answer this question for you. It is best that we answer this collectively as a society.
Today I would like to share with you a specific resource that I have developed to better support dads of children who are preterm or unwell and are being looked after in neonatal units.
As you very well know, being a new dad can be a daunting thing, but being the parent of a child in neonatal care potentially brings even more difficult emotions and problems, as well as a wealth of complex information to digest.
The idea for the Neonatal DadPad was conceived by me after recognising that there was a need for better communication and support for fathers of babies on neonatal units. It is thought to be the first resource of its kind in the world.
The pack of laminated cards contains practical information and advice on relevant matters, including how dads can best help themselves and their partners as they each deal with their feelings and emotions; where to go to seek further help, support and information; and practical guidance on holding, handling, bonding with and caring for their baby.
It is hoped that the resource will become a valuable tool for fathers during this sensitive time, as well as a 'keepsake' book for the father, child and family, with spaces in which to record information, pictures and emotions. It has been designed to be kept as a memento of the neonatal journey.
Whilst this resource is aimed specifically at dads, the information within it is useful for both parents and is also a good adjunct for communication for neonatal unit staff.
The Neonatal DadPad will be launched at the Neonatal Unit at Poole Hospital in England on 17th June 2018, Father’s day https://thedadpad.co.uk/neonatal/
Better engagement of dads plays a critical role in supporting mothers, improving breastfeeding rates, decreasing risk and improving the integrity and resilience of the family unit at a very difficult time.
Even outside the neonatal unit i.e. following normal birth and a well-baby, the experiences of fathers are in many ways suboptimal. Improved experience of fathers will improve health outcomes not just for the father but more importantly for the child, for the mother, the family and society at large. We find that supporting the father-infant bond and supporting co-parenting between the mother and the father benefits the health of the baby as well as the family unit. We find, however, that despite much interest in engaging with parents as full partners in the care of the infant, engagement with fathers is generally poor. Fathers typically describe the opportunity to bond with their babies in glowing terms of gratitude, happiness and love. These emotions are underpinned by hormonal and neurobiological changes that take place in fathers when they care for their babies, (similar to what has been well known and accepted for mothers) Fathers, however, are subject to different social expectations and this shapes how they respond to the situation and how others treat them. Fathers are more likely to be considered responsible for earning, they are often considered to be less competent at caring than mothers and they are expected to be “the strong one”, providing support to mothers but not expecting it in return.
It is important that health services and society assess the needs of mother and father individually, gear parenting education towards co-parenting, actively promote father-infant bonding, be attentive to fathers hiding their stress, communicate with fathers directly not just via the mother and facilitate peer-to-peer communication for fathers as appropriate. Health care staff need better training to be able to evaluate the needs of fathers and to positively support co-parenting.
In conclusion we need a paradigm shift to appreciate and implement:
• support for the father-baby bond like the mother-baby bond is supported
• support for co-parenting, by the mother and father working together as a team
This shift is critical in moving individuals, healthcare teams and society at large, away from the widespread view that mothers are primary carers of infants and fathers are helpers to the co-parenting paradigm. Fathers have innate biologically based abilities to bond with and care for babies; these are especially important for the health and safety of babies in situations of stress and risk. The father-baby bond optimises the family dynamic and the opportunities for nurture of children.
I would like to leave you with some great pics of the overwhelming joy of new fathers, courtesy UNICEF at https://familyincluded.com/love-and-joy-fathers-hold-their-babies/
Prof (Dr.) Minesh Khashu MBBS, MD, FRCPCH, FRSA
Consultant Neonatologist & Professor of Perinatal Health
Above all else a ‘father’ and a ‘student of life’