A dad's guide to bonding with baby

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

Dr Anna Machin

When it comes to dads, there isn’t much Dr Anna Machin doesn’t know.

An evolutionary anthropologist based at The University of Oxford, she has studied the experience of dads for over 10 years.

She probably knows more about fatherhood than dads do themselves, right?

Not really, but perhaps more than dads think they know – part of her message is for men to trust their instincts when it comes to being a parent.

So what’s the number one worry for new dads? Her research 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.

Below, she tells us 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. 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.

Dads develop their bond with baby by communicating, caring and playing.

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.

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

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. Babies can hear within the womb from around 18 weeks. 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.

Get snuggling

Make sure that you get that crucial skin-to-skin contact as soon after birth as you can. 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.

The power of touch

The bond a dad has with his baby is unique, too

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.

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.

Permission to be fun dad

At around six months old, bonding moves to a different level. Your baby is now developmentally ready for some play time. And there’s one form of play that is favoured by babies and dads – rough and tumble.

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.

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. So, dads – feel free to tickle, jump and bounce and see your bond become stronger.

Dad's bond is just as special

It can be easy to see the mother/baby bond as the ‘gold standard’. But the bond dad has with his 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.

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.

Further information

Dr Anna Machin has written The Life of Dad: The Making of the Modern Father (Simon & Schuster 2018).

For more advice and tips on navigating being a dad, check out our articles here.