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Babies and their mothers often have a strong bond that begins during pregnancy and quickly strengthens in the first weeks of parenthood. Although fathers are more involved than ever before, most women are socially and biologically programmed for parenthood to a stronger degree than men.
Mothers have a clearly defined role centred around feeding, particularly if breastfeeding. The baby learns to associate their mother with soothing and comfort because of this link with feeding and, for most mothers, the relationship naturally builds from there.
In contrast, new fathers often report feeling lost in their new role, not quite knowing where they fit into the picture or how they are needed. This can be very different to expectations of fatherhood and can cause feelings of disappointment, resentfulness or low mood which can affect not just the father-infant relationship but also the relationship between parents.
Research shows that the involvement of fathers in early childhood has important consequences for child developmental and psychological outcomes over time. Being involved in a baby’s sleep routines is a good way for fathers to strengthen their bond with their child and to support their partner as a mother. It’s important to understand an infant’s changing sleep needs with age if you are to be involved in their sleep routines. A newborn baby needs 16 to 18 hours of sleep over a 24-hour period but the circadian rhythm, the biological clock that regulates the timing and duration of sleep, has not yet developed. This means that in the first few months there is no defined pattern and bouts of sleep occur throughout the day and night, lasting for a few minutes to several hours. Periods of sleep are broken up by feeding, nappy changing and comforting.
This makes things tough for new parents, who are estimated to lose 350 hours of shuteye in the first year of parenthood. It is really important for parents to work together to reduce the impact of this sleep disruption. So, the dad can take the baby to another room (in between feeds if breastfeeding) in the early part of the night (say 9pm until midnight), catch up on sleep until the early morning then take the baby again around 5am or 6am to allow the mother to recuperate. Or if bottle feeding, you can alternate night shifts in the first few weeks if the dad is on paternity leave. So while you may not be working together in time, you are working together over the day and night period to reduce the impact of disturbed sleep. There is no shame in sleeping in separate bedrooms in order to conserve your sleep during this time. Better this than having two parents completely broken by sleep disruption.
Dads may find that they can actually settle their baby more effectively between feeds than the mother if she is breastfeeding. This is because the smell of milk can lead the baby to feed again instead of settling down. If this is the case, handing the baby to the dad after feeding can be a useful way of getting the baby to sleep.
After 3-4 months, a sleep pattern tends to develop with more sleep at night and daytime naps becoming less frequent but more consolidated. Total sleep time over a 24-hour period drops to 12-16 hours. Some parents are fortunate enough to have babies who start to sleep through the night as early as 6 weeks but, for others, it can take up to a year. At 6 months, most babies have the capacity to sleep through the night and have reached a level of physical maturity which means they no longer need to feed at night. However, many babies do not do this naturally and they have to be taught how to self-soothe to get them to sleep or back to sleep when they wake in the night.
This is where dads can clearly get involved. Setting a consistent bedtime routine is key and it’s good to start this early on in a newborn’s life. This can involve a bath, bedtime feeding, some gentle music or singing then some soothing and rocking before putting the baby down when calm and drowsy, ready for sleep. It is important that this routine is very similar between parents so the baby recognises that these things mean bedtime. In addition, set consistent bedtimes and ensure the lighting is low during the wind-down routine.
Another important role for the father in the newborn period is spending more time with older siblings to allow the mother uninterrupted time with the baby. During this time, dads may become more involved in older children’s bedtime routines and again these need to maintain a consistent pattern between both parents, particularly when the addition of a new baby may be unsettling for older siblings. This can be a time when the father’s relationship with other children is strengthened.
A dad’s role in baby sleep routines is twofold: establishing his own strong connection with the child while also supporting his partner’s relationship with the infant. In this way, the father-infant relationship is built in the context of the mother-baby relationship, rather than independently from it. For new parents this change in relationship dynamics can be a challenge but, with time and patience, this can lead to a new balance with stronger bonds between all parties involved.
Author: Christabel Majendie, the Naturalmat Sleep Expert
For more articles and advice on babies and sleep, visit our blog www.naturalmat.co.uk/blog/babyandchild