The Father-Child Connection

Building bonds even when work calls.

In all my reading on parenting in the last decade, one of the most interesting findings was from a study by Robert Frank, a professor of child development, comparing the bonds between full-time working mothers and fathers with primary caregiver stay-at-home moms versus stay-at-home dads.

What I found most interesting were findings relating to which parent a child chooses to soothe him or her when hurt or awakened in the middle of the night. The study found that even when the mother worked full-time, 80 percent of the time the child would choose the mom to meet a physical or emotional need. But with a stay-at-home-dad, the children in the study were just as likely to go to the mother as they were to the father. This tells me that despite working full-time, mothers are able to develop bonds strong enough to soothe their children when they are upset— even when mom is away during the day. This made me wonder, “How can we working dads develop similar bonds with our kids?”

It turns out the keys to forming strong bonds with babies and children lie in these two questions: How is your time with your child spent and how do children form emotional connections that lead to trust?

As a working dad, invest your time with your kids by interacting with them to develop strong emotional ties. Time in the house won’t foster the same level of attachment as time spent playing, reading and caring for them. Simply being near your children isn’t enough to form strong emotional bonds and the feeling that kids can depend on you.

Babies understand when people are meeting their basic needs. This directly affects how they form relationships and build trust. If they need a diaper change, babies attach strongly to the person who regularly cleans them. This applies to other needs, like feeding, bathing and sleeping. Mother-child bonds aren’t developed simply because the parent is a mom. Connections develop and strengthen because mothers generally meet their children’s needs. Working dads can develop strong bonds by meeting kids’ emotional and physical needs, too.

Additional Tips to Foster Father-Child Bonds

  • Change into “at-home” clothes after work. This sends a message that you’re in dad mode, not work mode.
  • Take over bath duty. Play with your kids while they’re bathing. Then dry them off and get the kids ready for bed.
  • Handle all diaper changes when you’re home.
  • Feed your children. If they no longer need your help eating, fix their plates, then sit, eat and talk with your kids.
  • Take over “tuck-in time” at bedtime as many nights as you can. Develop special nighttime routines that involve reading, singing or cuddling.
  • Be the one to soothe kids back to sleep when they wake up in the night.

For me, this meant becoming the night watchman.

My wife spent the first four and a half years at home with our twins (now age 9) while I went to work every day. We decided that I would sleep at night so that I would be rested for work and my wife would get up if the kids awoke in the night. We quickly realized that this wasn’t playing to our strengths (I need less sleep than my wife does), and I was missing out on an opportunity. Any time my kids might really need me, I was either at work or asleep. How could I develop a strong bond with my kids under these circumstances?

That was when I became the night watchman, the one who handled everything during the night. If the kids were upset, I was the one who went to comfort them. It wasn’t long before I heard the twins call out “Daddy!” when they woke up. I was tired, but my kids and I were building bonds I didn’t know were possible.

Working dads have to try harder to strengthen bonds that we want with our children. Caring for their needs when they’re small means hearing your kids call out “Daddy” as they grow older.

Five Ways to Bond with Baby

  • Hold your baby. Try kangaroo care: Hold your baby bare chest to bare chest. Baby may even fall asleep like that. In fact, you may, too.
  • Feed your baby. If mom is breastfeeding, ask her to pump a little bit every day so you can bottle feed your baby. Your tot needs to know that you can take care of his or her hunger needs.
  • Take a walk with your baby in an infant carrier, sling or stroller.
  • Read, talk and sing to your baby. Your youngster needs to hear the sound of your voice.
  • Trim your baby’s nails. The fingernails and toenails of babies grow fast, and babies can scratch themselves, their siblings and you. You’re doing everyone a favor by clipping baby’s nails and having a great bonding session during the task.