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The First Year: When Babies Prefer Mom

Dads don’t need to be left out of this special bonding time.

Question

Or new baby is only five-weeks old and is a really easy baby to take care of, except for one thing. She really prefers me (mom) to her dad. I’m sure that part of the problem is that I’m breastfeeding, but I don’t want to give that up. Even if she has just been fed she gets fussy when her dad holds her and then calms down when he gives her back to me. He’s feeling very left out. Is there anything we can do?

Answer

It’s not unusual for a young baby to be most comfortable when her mom is holding her. Babies can’t know how their dad’s are feeling, they only know that the scent and feel of their mothers’ arms feels right to them. Some babies, of course, are more adaptable than others, but many babies make their preference for mom quite clear.

The bond between a nursing mother and her baby is very strong, biologically and emotionally. Since young babies need to be fed very often, they do not separate easily from their primary source of nourishment and warmth. In fact, mother nature has an ingenious way to make moms want to hold and comfort their babies.

When a nursing mother hears her baby cry, she releases hormones that “let down” her milk. Her breasts will become full and she will feel uncomfortable until the baby begins to nurse. Once the baby begins to nurse, mom releases hormones that makes her feel relaxed and happy. After a few weeks, this pattern makes it very hard for a mom to hear her baby cry without wanting to pick her up and comfort her immediately. A father may not like it when his baby cries, but he may be able to tolerate it a little longer. So when dad holds the baby and she cries, mom gets tense, dad gets tense, and then baby is returned to the familiarity of mother’s arms. (This is also one of the reasons why new parents often disagree about how quickly to go to a baby when she’s fussing.)

Get dad involved

Even if dad can’t nurse, there are some things that a he can do to feel close to a young baby. It’s a good idea to start caring for the baby early, as often as possible. Some studies have shown that when a mother has had a Caesarian birth, dads are more likely to share care of babies in the months that follow, probably because they’ve been so necessary to the baby’s care in the first weeks while the mother is recovering.

Most babies with a preference for mom will do best if mom is not available while dad is taking care of them. If your baby has just been fed, dad can take her for a walk, snuggled on his shoulder or tucked in a front pack. Fresh air, movement, and body contact will often make a baby with a full stomach relax enough to forget about mom for an hour or two. Moms may find it annoying, but even in an area where many dads are very involved parents, a dad on his own will often get lots of compliments about being a great father just for taking the baby for a walk. While fathers are out, moms get a chance for a break and aren’t there to offer advice or take over. Most dads don’t appreciate it when moms try to convince that the only way to take care of the baby is the mom’s way. Even if a dad seems a little clumsy at times, he’ll get better with practice and micromanaging always leads to tension and conflict.

Even if your baby is completely breast-fed, think about having dad offer her a bottle of expressed milk once a day. Once breast feeding is well established, offering a bottle won’t interfere with nursing. Don’t wait too long for this, even if it seems less convenient at times. If your baby doesn’t get used to taking a bottle early, she may refuse one in the months to come, and you’ll feel even more tied down. Besides, dads enjoy being able to share the pleasure of feeding time with their baby.

If you don’t want to express milk, he can offer a bottle of water. Some babies will drink water more readily if you dissolve one teaspoon of sugar (not honey) into four ounces of warm water. The slightly sweet water is more appealing than plain but won’t interfere with your baby’s hunger for her next meal.

Bath time can also be fun, if your baby likes the water. Most babies like a little massage with an unscented oil or lotion. Choose a time when your baby is in her “quiet alert” stage for the best experience for both baby and dad. Gentle massage will often help a baby to prolong a quiet state that continues even after the massage is over. Even diapering can be “quality time” for a dad and baby, if he talks and coos to her while he is cleaning and changing her.

As new parents you need to be very aware of each other’s needs right now. Mothers are often so overwhelmed with caring for a new baby that they don’t have much energy left for the couple relationship. Dads, on the other hand, may not get to enjoy the baby as much and may feel deprived of both their mate and their expectations of what fatherhood would be like. No one can imagine what daily life will be like with a new baby. Of  course, no one has the time or energy to talk about this, so it’s no wonder that both parents can wind up feeling that even though the baby is wonderful, daily life isn’t very much fun!

Moms often get more support and understanding than dads for the new role they are learning. Dads may think that they are the only men who are trying to figure out everything from how to juggle a baby, a job and a messy house, not to mention what kind of role model they want to be for this new little person.

Supports for dads

Fortunately we live in an area where we have great support and resources for fathers. Fathers of babies and young children can meet other fathers for discussions, activities or a hike through local resources such as the Fathers Forum (Fathersforum.com) or East Bay Dads (Eastbaydads.com). If a dad is feeling really overwhelmed or stressed out, the extra support of a resource like Postpartummen.com can be a lifesaver. Most people don’t know that dads feel the baby blues just like moms, and dads can also experience postpartum depression. Moms can help by encouraging dads to check these local online resources. Even better, Moms can encourage (even push) dads to use these resources to get together with other dads in real life.

Fortunately, nature designed babies to rapidly move through this period of complete dependency on mom. Soon, your baby will become a delightfully social being. By the time you read this, she will be smiling and flirting as she discovers that there is more to life than a good meal and a nap. In fact, by the end of her third month, she’ll be so delighted to see her dad that you’ll see her get excited and animated just seeing his face. So be patient, support each other through this difficult time, and you’ll all emerge intact.

 

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