Monday, 16 May 2011

Attachment Parenting: A father's role

Today in our Attachment Parenting Series, we will be discussing the role of fathers. If you have written a post on fatherhood as it relates to Attachment Parenting, please do share it with us in the comments below!


Fathers play a vital role in Attachment Parenting (AP).*

When the mother is the primary caregiver, she will naturally be the one to spend the greatest amount of time in contact with the baby. In the early weeks, the mother will be the one to do most of the parenting of the infant simply by virtue of the amount of time a baby spends at the breast. However, it is because of this higher contact between mother and child (when the mother is the primary caregiver) that the father should be highly involved in parenting during the time he does spend at home.

An involved father serves a two-fold purpose: he will bring his own unique offering to the child, and he will help prevent the mother from burning out.

* For simplicity’s sake, I refer to the “husband”, “father”, and “marriage”. Please expand this to fit any form of long-term partnership that involves parenting a child, where one parent stays home with the child as the primary caregiver. The unique needs of attachment parenting as a single parent require their own focus, one which I am not qualified to provide.

Unique offering

The father brings his own unique offering to his child. With the exception of physically breastfeeding the baby, the father can be involved in all areas of raising his child. This close involvement will allow a young baby to become accustomed to the father’s distinct smell, sound, and feel, providing the baby with a second strong attachment relationship. As the child grows, he or she will continue to benefit from this close relationship and from the unique offerings brought by each parent.

Preventing burnout

The father’s involvement is of particular importance when taking an AP approach to parenting because it is far too easy for a mother to become burned out when left to meet all of the child's needs alone. Although it is common for the baby to naturally prefer the mother in the early months, the father plays a central role in creating a supportive environment, helping to nurture the child by supporting the mother. A father’s involvement includes both emotional support and practical involvement.

Emotional support

When a father is supportive rather than critical, he frees the mother to share her burdens rather than bottling them up. Because AP mothers often find themselves swimming against the parenting current, they are frequently reluctant to discuss parenting struggles for fear of having the blame placed on their choice to approach parenting in an AP manner. A mother who does not face the same criticism at home will be better able to confide in her husband and seek support from him when needed.

Emotional support can take many forms, including:
  • public unity
  • verbal encouragement
  • involvement in decision-making
  • assistance with meal prep and housework
  • encouraging a tired mother to meet her own need for self-care, and
  • working with the mother to make changes when necessary.

This emotional support should begin before the baby is born with the father’s involvement in the pregnancy. In addition to the above, this involvement may include accompanying the mother to prenatal visits, talking to the baby in the womb, assisting in preparing the nursery, and encouraging the mother through labour and delivery.

Practical involvement

Although a father cannot breastfeed the child, he can support the breastfeeding relationship not only emotionally, but in practical ways as well. Does the nursing mother need a glass of water or a book? Are there meals that need to be cooked or older children that need to be interacted with?

Babywearing is an especially useful tool for fathers, encouraging a strong father-child bond as the baby becomes accustomed to the father’s unique walk, movement, heartbeat, smell, and voice. The father can wear the baby around the house, take the baby for a walk, or rock the baby to sleep.

A father can be involved in nighttime parenting as well. For the bed-sharing family, this involvement may be more supportive than practical, as sleep disruptions are minimal when the stirring baby needs only to find comfort in a nearby parent or latch on to nurse back to sleep. When the child is sleeping in his or her own space, the father can bring the baby to the mother to nurse when needed, change the baby’s diaper if necessary, and settle the baby back to sleep.

Finally, a father can be involved in the daily care of the baby and the home. This includes housekeeping, diaper changes, baths, meal prep and cleanup, bedtime routine, entertaining, comforting, and responding to the baby’s cries.


A father’s close involvement with his child will benefit each family member individually as well as the family as a whole.

Benefits to the father

In addition to the rewards any mutually loving relationship brings, the father will benefit from the strong attachment that develops through his close involvement with his child. As connection grows, the parent/child relationship becomes increasingly natural and instinctive. The resulting mutual trust and sensitivity is the basis of the parent/child relationship and the foundation upon which future discipline will rely.

Every interaction with the baby allows the father to better read and respond to his child’s cues. The better the father knows his child and the more the child trusts the father, the easier discipline will be as the child grows. The father will also be better equipped to care for the child in the absence of the mother.

Benefits to the mother

With the assistance of an involved, nurturing father, the mother will:
  • be more rested and calm
  • be better able to meet her own needs
  • be less likely to develop postpartum depression
  • feel confident in her husband’s abilities to care for his child, and
  • benefit emotionally from the support and encouragement of her husband.

Benefits to the child

The child will benefit from having a second strong attachment relationship. Each parent offers something unique to their relationship with the child, and the child benefits from both. Having a close relationship with both parents better enables the child to grow to be a healthy, well-adjusted adult. The positive interaction with and example set by an involved father will be beneficial to the child as he or she grows.

Mothers and fathers relate to their children differently, approach discipline differently, and interact with their children differently. When the underlying approach to parenting is one of unity, these differences will balance and complement each other. The child will thrive on the unique input each parent brings into their life.

Encouraging the reluctant father

Because of the frequent contact and close proximity between mother and child, the AP mother quickly becomes adept at reading the child's cues. This can shake the confidence of a father at first. He needs to be given the opportunity to bond and learn to read his child's cues as well. AP is particularly beneficial to the father in these circumstances because it allows him to develop the deepest connection with his child in the limited time he has.

To encourage the reluctant father:
  • promote early bonding through holding and comforting
  • provide opportunities for him to learn to read his child’s cues
  • allow him to develop his own unique way of meeting the child’s needs
  • offer suggestions if needed without hovering or nitpicking (“You could try…”)
  • purchase a gender-neutral baby carrier (the Ergo is a popular “male-approved” choice)
  • provide resources for the father to develop a deeper understanding of Attachment Parenting


The father has an important role to play in Attachment Parenting, bringing his own unique offering to the child while helping to prevent the mother from burning out.

A father’s involvement includes both emotional support and practical involvement. Emotional support may include understanding, encouragement, unity, involvement in decision-making, and assistance in making changes when necessary. Practical involvement may include supporting the breastfeeding relationship, babywearing, co-sleeping, taking part in nighttime parenting, and assisting in the daily care of the baby and the home.

Attachment Parenting will allow the father to bond with his child more quickly and will give him useful tools to support the mother emotionally while assisting in the practical aspects of parenting. In addition to the benefits this offers to the mother and child, it enables the father to grow into a confident and involved parent.

Recommended Reading:

Fathers by Dr. Sears
Becoming a Father: How to Nurture and Enjoy Your Family by Dr. William Sears
Father's First Steps: 25 Things Every New Dad Should Know by Dr. Robert Sears


  1. Fascinating when you consider that nowhere along the way do you even suggest that fathers might WANT to be attachment parents.

    Yes, in the first year or so the job's primarily with the nursing mother, but as an attachment dad who has three children (and is now a single dad with > 50% custody of my kids, now 8, 11, and 15) I can tell you that there's an entire facet to this that's not quite represented in your otherwise interesting article.

  2. Dave, there was only one section on encouraging the reluctant father. A section on the father who WANTS to be an attachment parent would have been entirely redundant. ;)

    As the wife of a husband who has been very pro-AP since before our first child was even born, I have absolutely zero doubt that the same rings true for many, many other fathers. Again, however, "what to do when your husband is on board with AP" would be a rather useless article.

    If you would like to share you thoughts on the facet that you feel I missed, please do! A father's input would be most welcome.

  3. I realize this comment comes years after the post and your comments above- although I came here via a google search and I feel compelled to reply to your two comments. I didn't quite get what Dave was saying, although your reply makes it clear to me- in this sentence:
    Again, however, "what to do when your husband is on board with AP" would be a rather useless article.

    Where I humbly have to disagree. My partner is very on board with AP, and yet his bonding with our infant seems to be at a standstill. I can see the thing that's missing in this post- because I can tell you first hand that being supportive and available and 'on board' doesn't always equal a child who feels attached to their father. That's what I was searching for when I came here, and while your post is informative and well written, it did little more than make me feel even worse that my partner has done exactly what he should be doing for AP and our daughter screams every time he holds her, heck sometimes just when she makes eye contact with him. It's breaking his heart, and mine. Not to mention I'm starting to lose my ever loving mind because he can't physically help me with her.

    I'm not attacking at all, I just feel like it's an important thing that's not touched on in your post- or much of anywhere really in regards to AP. 'When AP works with the mom TOO well and baby leaves dad out.' If you have advice on what to do in this case, I'd love to hear it!

    1. Trish, that is a totally valid question. I apologize if my reply above sounded flippant; I very much understand and appreciate the issue you have raised.

      First, a baby having preference for one parent at the exclusion of the other is completely normal. I know that doesn't help in practical terms, but I do hope it puts your mind at ease as to whether or not you have done something "wrong" to cause this. It is very normal. Our third child is six months old and so far she is the first one who has not had a very forceful preference for Mommy, and not by virtue of having been parented any differently than her two older brothers. Again, not useful, but hopefully comforting. It does pass (in fact, both of my older ones eventually swung the opposite way and had a period of wanting Daddy to do everything, a period I took full advantage of, believe me!) and baby will form that attachment with her loving Daddy as well.

      But in the meantime (and forgive my brevity), there are three main thoughts I wanted to share, and I do hope you find them helpful:

      First, the supportive role should not be undervalued. During this stage of fervently wanting Mommy, there are so many things your husband can (and, I'm sure, already is!) do to help you. The more he takes care of you and the things that need to be done around the house, the more you can soak up this early baby stage. Still, that doesn't help when you just want to take a shower without her screaming in your husband's arms, I understand.

      Second, a baby crying with a calm and caring father is, though difficult for all three of you, not necessarily to be avoided. She will adjust in time, but in the meantime she is being loved and held through her tears, which is entirely different than being left to cry on her own. As he continues to carry her and rock her and wear her, she will grow used to his own unique feel, sound, and smell. To help her adjust to him, he may find it helpful to sit next to you as you nurse her. She will be both calm and alert, which is the perfect opportunity for him to stroke her head, talk to her, kiss her, and allow her to begin to develop a deeper attachment to him at a time when she feels secure. Likewise, when she is calm and alert, the three of you can lay in bed together with her in the middle (skin-to-skin, ideally), giving her that same sense of safety from which she can begin to adjust to his own unique sound and smell.

      Third, Dr. Sears has some practical tips on helping fathers to bond with their babies, such as holding her in the "neck nestle" position in which she can feel the vibrations of his voice. You can read his full article here for more suggestions.

      Finally, and perhaps most importantly, do try not to take it personally, both of you. I understand his feelings, and my husband expressed similar hurt with our baby boys, but they now both have an excellent relationship with their Daddy. From wanting only Mommy to now insisting that Daddy be the one to put them to bed, their attachment to their Daddy has not at all been negatively affected despite its slower start.

      Best wishes to you and your family.