dad playing with baby

What’s the best way for dads to bond with their babies? Dr Anna Machin shares tips on how dads can connect with their babies from the start – even before they’re born.

Dr Anna Machin, an evolutionary anthropologist based at The University of Oxford, shares her research that has revealed that one of the biggest concerns dads have during pregnancy and in the early days is about forming a bond with their baby. Here she highlights simple ways for dads to do this. And why a dad’s bond is so special and important.

It takes time

Pregnancy, birth and breastfeeding can give mums a bit of a head start in bonding (Machin, 2018). But dads can, and do, develop the most intense and powerful bonds with their children. It might just take a little longer than it does with mum (Machin, 2018).

Dads develop their bond with their baby by communicating, caring and playing (Feldman et al, 2010). As your baby develops with smiles, laughter and babbling, a true two-way relationship starts to develop. It can take on average six months to reach this point but it will happen (Machin, 2018).

The bond most dads have with their six-month-old baby is fundamentally different to the one they had immediately after birth (Machin, 2015). You will get there but, in the meantime, here are a few tips for helping that bond along, before birth and after.

1. Start early

A bit of pre-birth bonding can significantly increase the chance that dads will develop a strong bond with their baby when they’re born (Condon, 1993). Babies can hear within the womb from around 18 weeks (Tommy’s, 2018). So, however silly it might feel, take time every day to speak, sing and read to your baby in the womb.

This is your opportunity to share your day with them or even your top 10 albums of all time. Why not tell your baby about your dreams and aspirations for them, and what you might do together? All of this can lead to a stronger bond after birth (Condon, 1993; Machin, 2018).

2. Get snuggling

Make sure that you get that crucial skin-to-skin contact as soon after birth as you can (Shorey et al, 2016). Tell the midwife that you’d like to do this so it isn’t forgotten. And that’s just the start of skin-to-skin. It’s a great way for dads to continue to get close to their baby in the coming months.

Skin-to-skin cuddles let your baby hear your heartbeat and learn your smell, just like they do with mum if she’s breastfeeding. Take every opportunity you can to let them snuggle up on your chest. It’s a lovely way to feel close and can help you both relax too.

3. The power of touch

A good way of carving out some dad time is to find a task that can be just yours. One of the best for bonding is baby massage. It releases floods of the happy hormone oxytocin in both of you, which will help cement your connection (Rominov et al, 2016)

Recent studies have also shown that if you’re suffering from the baby blues (yes, dads get them too), massage can be one of the best ways to improve your mood (Edward et al, 2015; Rominov et al, 2016; Machin, 2015, 2018).

4. Permission to be fun dad

At around six months old, bonding moves to a different level. Your baby is now developmentally ready for some playtime.

There’s one form of play that is favoured by babies and dads – rough and tumble (Feldman et al, 2010). We’re talking about aeroplaning round the room, bouncing baby up and down and lots of tickling. Being fast, exuberant and risky, this type of play ramps up the release of oxytocin, dopamine and beta-endorphin. This means babies and their dads get a head rush of bonding chemicals (Feldman et al, 2010).

Not only is this a great way for you to really get to know each other, it’s fundamental to your baby’s physical and social development. It builds their mental resilience, physical coordination and social skills (Machin, 2015, 2018). So, dads – feel free to tickle, jump and bounce and see your bond become stronger (Ulmer-Yaniv et al, 2016).

5. Dad’s bond is just as special

It can be easy to see the mother–baby bond as the ‘gold standard’. But the bonds dads have with their baby is unique too. In fact, the bond that mums and dads have with their baby is different to support your baby’s development. It helps them understand the range of individuals and relationships they will meet in life (Machin, 2018)

Evolution has seen fit for the bond between dad and baby to be deliberately different to that between mum and baby. And it is no less strong. Be confident in the relationship you have with your baby.

Dr Anna Machin is an evolutionary anthropologist based at The University of Oxford, who has studied the experience of dads for over 10 years. She has written The Life of Dad: The Making of the Modern Father (Simon & Schuster, 2018).

This page was last reviewed in May 2019.

Further information

Our support line offers practical and emotional support in all areas of pregnancy, birth and early parenthood: 0300 330 0700. We also offer antenatal courses that are a great way for both parents to find out more about birth, labour and life with a new baby.

Make friends with other parents-to-be and new parents in your local area for support and friendship by seeing what NCT activities are happening nearby.

Condon J. (1993) The assessment of antenatal emotional attachment: development of a questionnaire instrument. British Journal of Medical Psychology 66(Pt2):167-183. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/8353110 [Accessed 1st April 2019]

Edward KL, Castle D, Mills C, Davis L, Casey J. (2015) An integrative review of paternal depression. American Journal of Men’s Health 9(1):26-34. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/24626601 [Accessed 1st April 2019]

Feldman R, Gordon I, Schneiderman I, Weisman O, Zagoory-Sharon O. (2010) Natural variations in maternal and paternal care associated with systematic changes in oxytocin following parent-infant contact. Psychoneuroendocrinology. 35(8):1133-1141. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20153585 [Accessed 1st April 2019]

Machin AJ. (2015) Mind the gap: the expectation and reality of involved fatherhood fathering. Fathering: A Journal of Theory, Research & Practice about Men as Fathers. 13(1):36-59.

Machin AJ. (2018) The life of dad: the making of the modern father. Simon & Schuster, London.

Rominov H, Pilkington PD, Giallo R, Whelan TA. (2016) A systematic review of interventions targeting paternal mental health in the perinatal period. Infant Mental Health Journal. 37(3):289-301. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27079685 [Accessed 1st April 2019]

Tommy’s. (2018) 18 weeks pregnant - all you need to know. Available at https://www.tommys.org/pregnancy-week-by-week/18-weeks-pregnant-whats-happening. [Accessed 1st April 2019]

Shorey S, He HG, Morelius E. (2016) Skin-to-skin contact by fathers and the impact on infant and paternal outcomes: an intergrative review. Midwifery. 40:207-217. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/27476026 [Accessed 1st April 2019]

Ulmer-Yaniv A, Avitsur R, Kanat-Maymon Y, Schneiderman I, Zagoory-Sharon O, Feldman R. (2016) Affiliation, reward, and immune biomarkers coalesce to support social synchrony during periods of bond formation in humans. Brain Behaviour & Immunology. 56:130-139. Available at: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/26902915 [Accessed 1st April 2019]

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