What Babies Learn From Dads
By Harald Breiding-Buss
Research continues to shake up the traditional idea that baby gets all (s)he needs from mum. As most active brain development happens in the first two or so years of a child’s life, Harald Breiding-Buss looks at some of the things fathers do that baby needs.
With all the fuss that is generally made about a mum and ‘her’ baby, it’s easy to think that the best a father can do is stand back, make sure the money keeps flowing in and give mum a little help when she needs it.
As a result a baby becomes rather attached to its fulltime mum. Whenever baby is hungry, wet, sick only mum seems to have the tools and abilities to comfort the crying and do what needs to be done. A well-meaning father may very well be angrily rejected if he tries to meet those needs while mum is around.
So many a working dad restricts himself to being baby’s “entertainer”, a “jester” or a “clown” – all words I have heard a new father use to describe his own role – and waits for his “turn”, when baby is a bit older and daddy can be a role model. Even a well-known author like Steve Biddulph (“Raising Boys”) thinks there’s not much more a father can do before age 6 or so.
Brain science begs to disagree. The first two or three years may well be the most important in a child’s life altogether, because this is where the brain gets ‘organised’ to deal with what life will throw at him. The brain is the most underdeveloped organ we are born with – it has only 25% the size of an adult brain at birth, and is rather simply structured.
Unlike in an older child or adult, the neurons (or nerve cells) that make up the brain, are hardly connected with each other in a baby. The different parts of the brain do not yet communicate with each other. Baby has not yet learned which parts of the brain are most useful for the task at hand.
It is ready for its long journey of learning, but it needs the right stimulation at the right time or it won’t happen. And it is the kind of stimulation baby gets that determines how those neuron connections will turn out.
By six months baby’s brain has already doubled in size, but it hasn’t made any new neurons. The brain has merely grown in complexity. By two years the brain is 80% of an adult’s brain’s size.
Some things baby hasn’t learned by then will be very hard for baby to pick up later – or even impossible. A kitten, for example, that has been prevented from seeing for a few crucial days will end up blind for the rest of its life.
The language centres of your brain also need to be stimulated at certain times quite early in your childhood, even before you have learned to talk much, or you will never be able to put together a grammatically coherent sentence.
Where do fathers fit in this? Isn’t mum already doing everything that’s needed in those early months?
By herself, especially if also isolated from support of her own family, mum is likely to do everything that’s needed for baby’s survival and comfort, but not everything that ensures optimal development. Babies’ brains are stimulated by variety, and fathers provide more variety than they generally realise.
Some studies have shown that even a three month old baby can already distinguish between the different kind of stimulations mum and dad give.
A baby with a dummy in the mouth will placidly suck on it when mum enters the room (provided he is not tired or hungry), but give the dummy a much harder workout when dad comes in. He will probably also show other physical signs of agitation: moving his limbs, trying to roll over or lift himself up.
Dad needn’t even have said a word – baby can recognise him by his step. He already knows that when dad comes it’s playtime, when mum comes it’ll be a new nappy or perhaps some cuddling or singing.
I have seen a four month old boy poking his tongue out at dad when he comes home from work, and mum then tells me that he only ever does that for him. Most likely dad is playing “silly” games with his face with baby, and by poking his tongue out that boy was simply asking for more. He doesn’t do it with mum, because mum’s response is perhaps not quite as stimulating.
So is this dummy sucking and tongue poking important for baby’s development? You bet.
Babies tell their parents what they need – that’s obvious when he’s screaming his lungs out because he’s hungry or something hurts. But when he smiles at you because of the way you play with him, he is doing the very same thing: he is saying “please, keep going like that, my brain is thriving on it”.
Any two people will do the same thing slightly different, but a man does things different from a woman in quite specific ways – be it because of nature or nurture.
From a baby’s perspective there’s the things that are obvious even to us: the scratchy (or hairy) face or the deeper voice. But there is much more: Men and women use language differently, both in terms of choice of words and purpose, although both usually raise the pitch when talking to babies.
When a dad picks up baby he is bound to handle him a little bit different to mum. His greater strength will show through even when he is gentle. You and I are so used to these differences that we wouldn’t notice them, but for a baby everything is new, and everything has to be experienced for a first time.
Dads will usually pick different activities to do with their children than mum, and they will often offer help with a problem later in the game than mum. Dads often pick no toys at all when playing with young babies or play with them in ways different to what the toy is for. When dad plays, pigs can fly and cows can go “brrm”.
(Deliberately misrepresenting things like that is another form of a puzzle, although it seems just like silly entertainment).
Part of the reason why dad may feel like a clown is because baby asks him to be. And baby asks him, because he needs this stimulation to reach his full potential, well-worn as this phrase may be. Dads do it without thinking about it.
But not every man is naturally playful, and not every new dad is happy to assume the traditional role of after-hours playmate. With social pressures as they are these men may feel guilty about not being ‘proper’ dads.
Through the mixture of love, gentleness, rough play and (sometimes) scary voice dad also teaches his offspring important lessons about men at this early age, which then become embedded in baby’s brain.
Manhood is a complicated thing, full of contradictions between who you are and what you are supposed to be. Both boys and girls learn much of it from their fathers before the age of two and they learn it in very subtle and subconscious ways that are often impossible to control.
NZ research, for example, has found that girls are at much increased risk of early pregnancy when dad isn’t around before age five (see Father&Child #24). Babies learn important things about men simply because dad is around, and they can’t if he isn’t.
Studies that have researched child development in families, where mainly dad looks after the baby during their waking hours, and found no consistent difference for the outcomes between these or any other children.
Provided dad is reasonably confident in what he is doing, baby will form the same kind of attachment to him that he normally reserves to mum, and dad will get the same kind of satisfaction and purpose from this attachment than a mum normally would. But even in those ‘role-reversed’ households, men are still men and women are still women.