Page last updated at 00:16 GMT, Wednesday, 20 January 2010

Giving new life to the role of the father

By Clare Murphy
Health reporter, BBC News

Pregnant woman and partner
Fathers are to be educated on healthy pregnancies, as part of the plan

More fathers than ever before may attend the birth of their child, but the government is keen to involve them even more closely in pregnancy, labour and the aftermath as part of its Green Paper on the family.

As of next month, fathers-to-be will be the target audience of new leaflets and pamphlets, while the midwives' body has been asked to draw up new guidelines for its members on how to better draw fathers into the process of pregnancy and birth.

The Guide for New Dads, produced in conjunction with the Fatherhood Institute (FI), will provide information on a range of issues from paternity leave to breastfeeding.

"We know men want to be involved with a new baby, but so many chances to engage them are missed," says Adrienne Burgess, head of research at the FI. "The truth is if you want a mother to eat well during pregnancy, or quit smoking, you have to get the father involved at early stage because his behaviour will unquestionably influence hers.

We should wonder about what the effects for the private life of couples there may be of 'educating' fathers to enthuse to new mums about how important it is to breastfeed
Dr Ellie Lee
University of Kent

"And while fathers may say when it comes to breastfeeding - 'I'll support you in whatever you choose to do', mothers' perceptions about what the father really thinks about breastfeeding and the toll it may take on the body are one reason she may stop.

"If he is armed with the facts then he can provide the real encouragement she needs to keep going."

Sharing a room

Recent FI research has also shown that the vast majority of parents believe dads should be able to stay overnight in hospital with their partner when the baby is born.

This does however present problems at a number of levels - from the logistical and financial difficulties of transforming wards to accommodate men to the cultural issues surrounding the creation of what would effectively be mixed-sex wards.

While that may remain at best an aspiration, the government has asked the Royal College of Midwives (RCM) to put together guidelines for staff on how to better engage dads before, during and immediately after the birth.

Men have their own needs as new fathers, they also need to know about what their partner is experiencing and how they can support her
Elizabeth Duff

This is still very much in its infancy, but will draw on examples of best practice already taking place among midwives around the country.

"If we can lay out what involving fathers actually means at a practical level that can only be a good thing," says Professor Cathy Warwick, general secretary of the RCM.

"Nevertheless a midwife's first concern has to be the mother, her needs and wants. There may be cultural issues regarding the involvement of the father that need to be taken into account.

"And without question there needs to be space for a woman to discuss concerns without the father present, particularly in regard to domestic abuse.

"No-one is naive enough to think involving men will solve all our social problems. But it's a step, it's part of the picture."

Dad's card

The National Childbirth Trust, the largest private provider of ante-natal sessions in the UK, agreed that health professionals needed to reach out to the father as soon as they could so he can learn about the development of the baby and how he can provide support during labour and birth, and with breastfeeding.

Regular aerobic exercise can help to raise mood, so think of this as a priority for you and your baby's mum. Once she can express milk, encourage her to go for regular runs, swims or gym sessions - and look after the baby while she does this. Sort out your own exercise plan too.
Guide for New Dads

But there are nevertheless concerns about adding fresh information to the barrage of advice already aimed at new parents - and indeed whether such a move will end up undermining rather than supporting a new mother.

"One issue this raises is whether men will in the end feel more confident as a result - many studies attest to the way maternal anxiety has increased significantly under the weight of 'expert' advice about how to rear children," says Dr Ellie Lee, senior lecturer in social policy at the University of Kent.

"Research on feeding babies shows that mothers see the genuine and non-directive support their partners give them as very important. Many mothers value fathers doing night feeds with formula milk to relieve tiredness and share baby care.

"This suggests we should wonder about what the effects for the private life of couples there may be of 'educating' fathers to enthuse to new mums about how important it is to breastfeed."

As of next week, a leaflet aimed at men will be included in the pack a pregnant woman receives on her first hospital visit. The more comprehensive booklet will be issued from February with the popular Bounty Pack given out in the hospital after the baby is born.

This guide will also include a "Dad's Card", a credit card shape featuring contact details services and support available to new fathers and their families.

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