Fathers in neonatal units: Improving infant health by supporting the baby-father bond and mother-father coparenting
Esther A. Adama, Edith Cowan UniversityFollow
Craig F. Garfield
Edwin van Teijlingen
Journal of Neonatal Nursing
School of Nursing and Midwifery
The Family Initiative's International Neonatal Fathers Working Group, whose members are the authors of this paper, has reviewed the literature on engaging fathers in neonatal units, with the aim of making recommendations for improving experience of fathers as well as health outcomes in neonatal practice. We believe that supporting the father-baby bond and supporting co-parenting between the mother and the father benefits the health of the baby, for example, through improved weight gain and oxygen saturation and enhanced rates of breastfeeding. We find, however, that despite much interest in engaging with parents as full partners in the care of their baby, engaging fathers remains sub-optimal. Fathers typically describe the opportunity to bond with their babies, particularly skin-to-skin care, in glowing terms of gratitude, happiness and love. These sensations are underpinned by hormonal and neurobiological changes that take place in fathers when they care for their babies, as also happens with mothers. Fathers, however, are subject to different social expectations from mothers and this shapes how they respond to the situation and how neonatal staff treats 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. Our review ends with 12 practical recommendations for neonatal teams to focus on: (1) assess the needs of mother and father individually, (2) consider individual needs and wants in family care plans, (3) ensure complete flexibility of access to the neonatal unit for fathers, (4) gear parenting education towards co-parenting, (5) actively promote father-baby bonding, (6) be attentive to fathers hiding their stress, (7) inform fathers directly not just via the mother, (8) facilitate peer-to-peer communication for fathers, (9) differentiate and analyse by gender in service evaluations, (10) train staff to work with fathers and to support co-parenting, (11) develop a father-friendly audit tool for neonatal units, and (12) organise an international consultation to update guidelines for neonatal care, including those of UNICEF.