Helping First-Time Fathers Adjust Postpartum
When a child is born, much emphasis is placed on helping the new mother and baby adjust. But they aren’t the only ones undergoing change. Most first-time fathers experience stress due to sleep deprivation, change in routines and their own apprehensions about parenting.
“There are a myriad of emotions that come with being a new father,” says Armin Brott, author of multiple books and one DVD on fatherhood. “Most often it’s a feeling of pride and excitement. At the same time there can be apprehensions—‘Will I be a good father?’ ‘Can we afford this?’ ‘How is this going to change our lives?’”
This was what David Wuttke found. “When my son David Jr. was born, I had overwhelming feelings of anxiety and excitement all at once,” he says. “I had been babysitting since I was 16, so my anxiety wasn’t about child care. It was the reality of the responsibility that this was my son. And that sent a shock to my system.”
Just knowing there’s another person to care for can be a big stressor for first-time fathers. Couple that with the fact that many men don’t initially know how to bond with their newborns and you have a recipe for anxiety.
“If a mother is nursing, it naturally brings her in contact with the baby,” says Brott. “Dads don’t have that same natural bonding method, so they often get stuck doing the dirty work. But it shouldn’t be that way.”
Susan Maroto, LCSW and parent educator in prenatal care and postpartum adjustment, agrees. “There are things moms can do to help dads feel competent in that role,” she says. “Encourage them to take part in all areas of child care—feeding, bathing, reading and putting the baby down. Just be careful you aren’t overly critical. Standing behind your husband and correcting his every move will only frustrate him. Show him what needs to be done then let him develop his own style.”
Fortunately for Wuttke, basic training occurred as a teen sitter and paid big dividends when his son was born. Soon after his wife Christine delivered, she enrolled in college and David was thrust into solo evening child care.
“I never had to think about how to take care of David. I just fell back on my babysitting days,” says Wuttke. “If he was crying, I would say, ‘Okay, let’s guess what he needs?’ Then I’d check his diaper. If that was okay, I’d try to feed him. If he wasn’t hungry, I thought maybe he had gas or needed to sleep. One of those usually did the trick.”
For Anthony Franco, the adjustment wasn’t that easy. When his wife Lisa gave birth to the twins, Franco seemed to be fine. But four months into it, things changed.
“I started experiencing panic attacks and didn’t know why,” he remembers. “I would be in the supermarket when all of the sudden I would get this overwhelming sense of dread and lightheadedness.”
This went on for several months until Franco finally went to the doctor.
“He asked me where it was happening, and I told him it was when I was buying diapers, formula and other things for the twins,” he continues. “That’s when he pinpointed the problem. He said this happens to a lot of new fathers. He prescribed a little anti-anxiety medication and then I was fine.”
Brott believes it’s important for men to have someone with whom they can share their stress. “Some men have close friends they can confide in. But a lot don’t, so they keep all those concerns in and the stress level builds,” he says. “They shouldn’t be afraid to talk with other men and find out what they have gone through. Chances are they’ll find others felt the same way too.”
One concern most new fathers share is fatigue. Franco and Wuttke both had a hard time with this.
“The one thing I really didn’t expect was that time on a 24-hour clock had no meaning anymore,” says Franco. “It became irrelevant after a while and we just fit sleep in whenever we could.”
The Wuttkes solved this problem by enlisting the help of relatives. “There were times Chris and I said, ‘We need a break,’ and my mom would take David so we could rest. We even called my grandparents so we could have an occasional night out.”
Extended family and friends can be a huge help or add significant stress, depending upon the dynamic of the relationship, say experts. This is where husbands can help their wives by setting boundaries.
“Dad should take the role of communicator outside the family and, if needed, limit visitors,” says Maroto. “Encourage others to help in practical ways such as dropping off meals, running errands or watching the baby for 20 minutes so the couple can take a quick walk.”
What’s most important is to realize this is a period of adjustment and life does get easier.
“It’s like anything new, it takes a little time,” says Franco. “It took about 18 months before I became completely comfortable with the twins. Now we’re pretty much inseparable.”
Denise Yearian is the former editor of two parenting magazines and the mother of three children.
Tips for New Fathers
- Realize the father’s role is as important to the baby as the mother’s is.
- Remember experience is the best teacher. If the new dad came from a home where there were younger siblings or he has friends with babies, he may fall into the parenting role quicker.
- Encourage the new father to get involved in all aspects of child care—bathing, feeding, reading, and putting the baby to sleep. If he needs a little coaching, give him the basics then let him develop his own style.
- The wife should be careful not to criticize her husband’s efforts. Encourage him and make him feel competent in his new role.
- Realize that some babies, such as those with colic, are more of a challenge to soothe. If the baby is crying, look for obvious signs of discomfort—diaper change, hunger, fatigue, gas. Try to spend 10 minutes at any one strategy. If it doesn’t work, try another one. Remember newborns can also suffer from over stimulation due to lights, motion, sounds and people—things that may seem normal are a drastic change from a quiet womb.
- The new father should take on the role of communicator with outside family and friends and set limits and boundaries, if needed. Encourage others to help in practical ways such as dropping off meals, running errands or watching the baby so the couple can take a walk.
- Extended family can be a huge help or significant stressor. Encourage well-meaning but intruding relatives to refrain from giving unwanted input with regard to child care.
- One of the father’s biggest roles is to support the mother. This includes keeping an eye out for postpartum depression, which may have a delayed onset.
- Couples should keep a constant line of communication open with one another and discuss how the adjustment is going. Talk about things that are and are not working, and make suggestions for change.
- Make sure the new father has an outlet where he can share his stress. Look for a father support group or friend who is or has gone through this stage in life. If he doesn’t share his concerns, that stress may build.
- Couples should work at nurturing the marriage relationship as this will benefit the parents and child. If extended family is local, schedule occasional date nights. If this isn’t an option, look for creative ways to give the marriage attention—back or foot rubs, a note in the spouse’s lunchbox, a quick email sent to the office. Couples’ communication should include more than just baby talk.
- Make time for intimacy. Couples should be sensitive to each others needs and work together to find a compromise.
- Try to find time for ones self. While it may be impossible to maintain the before-baby lifestyle, determine what is most critical for each parent to relieve stress—sleep, exercise, time out of the house—and schedule that into the week.
- New fathers should be aware of their emotions. If they feel anxious or depressed for an extended period of time, they should talk with their physician.
- Realize it gets better. The more time fathers spend with their baby, the easier it will get. Right now things aren’t normal, but life will take on a new normalcy in time.
Resources for New Fathers
Books & DVDs:
- Be Prepared: A Practical Handbook for New Dads by Gary Greenberg and Jeannie Hayden
- The Expectant Father: Facts, Tips and Advice for Dads-to-Be by Armin Brott
- The Father’s Almanac: From Pregnancy to Pre-school, Baby Care to Behavior, the Complete and Indispensable Book of Practical Advice and Ideas for Every Man Discovering the Fun and Challenge of Fatherhood by S. Adams Sullivan
- New Father Book: What Every New Father Needs to Know to be a Good Dad by Wade F. Horn, Ph.D. and Jeffrey Rosenberg, MSW
- Toolbox for New Dads: Because Babies Don’t Come with Instructions by Armin Brott (DVD)